Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Shamans in Our Modern World

Sandra Waddock

Intellectual Shamans cover image

You don’t often hear about shamans in modern culture, at least not in the ivory towers of academia. But that is the term that came to mind as I started interviewing some of the most prominent of today’s academics in the management area.

In my book Intellectual Shamans: Management Academics Making a Difference, I ended up finding that there many people we could call shamans. I believe that there are shamans in all walks of life—if we just look around to find them. Certainly there are many more academics—and not just in management–than I was able to interview!

What are shamans?

Well, in traditional cultures, the shaman is the healer, sometimes known as the medicine man or woman. Interestingly, a lot of anthropological research suggests that shamans may also have been the first priests, spiritual leaders, artists, even timekeepers and scientists. They do many different things, but in all of them they are in a sense stretching beyond normal or accepted boundaries.

Traditional shamans do this spiritually, crossing spiritual realms to gather information and bring it back to help heal their patients and their communities.

Frequently, these people I call intellectual shamans are central figures in their communities, just as are the people I interviewed in their particular disciplines.

Shamans, it turns out, do three things.

They are natural boundary-spanners—I call them connectors—crossing disciplinary, theory-practice, or research-practice boundaries, and their work tends to be holistic and, in that sense, healing.

Intellectual shamans, like traditional shamans, have a healing orientation towards their discipline, often explicitly toward making the world a better place through their work, so they certainly are healers.

“Intellectual shamans, like traditional shamans, have a healing orientation towards their discipline, often explicitly toward making the world a better place through their work..”

They might focus on issues of sustainability, as, for example, the University of Michigan’s Andy Hoffman or the University of Vermont’s Stuart Hart do. Or they might believe that companies need to perform better towards their stakeholders, as the University of Virginia’s Ed Freeman, who popularized the idea of stakeholders over the past 30 years, does.

So, intellectual shamans are healers and connectors. They are also sensemakers, which is the third way that shamans work.

In traditional cultures, people frequently believe that when a person gets sick, there is something wrong with myths that describe the community. That is, the stories that people tell about how their communities work are somehow ‘off.’

Well, intellectual shamans also take on a sensemaking role to change the stories for the better and thereby heal the community and patient.

Only intellectual shamans change ideas, insights, and theories, for example, their discipline’s understanding of the world and how it functions.

In effect, they tell a different story, as, for example, Freeman did in popularizing the notion of a stakeholder perspective on the firm versus a shareholder perspective. Hoffman and Hart did much the same around the issue of sustainability, articulating the important impacts that companies have on the natural environment when that idea was little understood.

The stories of the amazing people in Intellectual Shamans are fascinating. I believe that the concept of the shaman in the modern world is one that is much needed, not just in management academics, but everywhere!

We all need to understand how to take on these central roles of healer, connector, and sensemaker and become shamans in our own right. Hopefully, my book sheds some light on how we can begin.

About The Author

Sandra Waddock

Sandra Waddock is the author of Intellectual Shamans: Management Academics Making a Difference (2015). She is the Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Re...

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