Thinking about System Transformation as a Shaman Might


Can system transformation be purposeful instead of random? The SDG Transformations Forum believes that the answer is—and needs to be—yes. Systems can be transformed so that they achieve global goals like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) more effectively. To do so requires new guiding narratives that clearly articulate an inspirational vision and are supported by core ideas—memes—that can be widely repeated and reproduced. It also demands a willingness/capacity to ‘let go’ and let the system evolve and emerge in its own way, hopefully guided by the core vision and its associated memes. In a paper called ‘Thinking Transformational System Change’ recently published online first in the Journal of Change Management, I argued that humanity needs such constructive, forward-looking, and purposeful system change to contend with the manifold problems current economic and societal approaches have created.

Instead of  a financial or material wealth orientation , the paper argues, as does the Club of Rome, for a life-affirming orientation towards societies and the economies are embedded within them, all of which are embedded in and dependent on the natural environment. In a context in which the Coronavirus is ravaging the world’s social and economic systems, the evidence of a need for purposeful transformation towards something quite different from today’s largely economic, constant growth-oriented economic model could not be stronger. As Steve Waddell recently pointed out: this crisis is an opportunity too good to waste.

Several years ago in a book called Intellectual Shamans, building on work by Peter Frost and Carolyn Egri, I argued that intellectual shamans, i.e., academics who are like shamans, serve the world through three capacities: healing, connecting, and sensemaking. Transformation agents, the current paper argues, serve the world through much the same functions.[1] In the current paper I describe these functions, following work by the SDG Transformations Forum, as seeing or understanding the system, sensemaking, and connecting. Just as Frost and Egri argued that organizational development experts—change agents in organizations—were healers, connectors (which they called boundary-spanners), and sensemakers, so too are today’s transformation makers fulfilling these same roles.

‘Seeing’ is part of what all shamans do—it is core to the healing function. To be able to heal the patient in the case of shamans or the system in the case of transformation makers, the healer must first understand—see—what is going on and where things are not working. The physicist Fritjof Capra defined three core elements of this type of seeing: gaining perspective on the current system, recognizing patterns of interaction, and determining the processes important to the system.

Sensemaking is a term coined by management scholar Karl Weick to indicate the process by which we make meaning out of situations. For shamans, meaning making often has to do with shifting core cultural mythologies. As anthropologists point out, shamans believe that when patients get ill, it is because something is wrong with the cultural mythology that helps frame their understanding of their community and the world about them. With respect to system transformation, cultural mythologies are the core ideas that we all share about the world or our societies work. Today’s mythology, at least in the developed world, tends to be dominated by economic thinking of the sort that is embedded in ideology known as neoliberalism. Part of the work of the transformation maker as healer is to ‘sensemake’ a different worldview, a different ‘story’ or narrative that can begin to shape thinking more broadly than purely economics-based thinking does. Thinkers like David Korten and ecologist L. Hunter Lovins argue for a more life-affirming approach to both societies and their embedded economies as part of the shift in narrative that is needed in transformation. The core ideas—memes—that support such stories, when resonant, inspirational, and powerful, have the ability to replicate in many minds—thereby changing attitudes, beliefs, and ideas—and, ultimately, behaviors and practices.

The third function of the shaman is what I call connecting, and it is also what many transformation makers attempt to do. Connecting means purposeful bringing together of actions, initiatives, ways of thinking that cross numerous boundaries—either organizational or institutional, disciplinary, sector, or others—so that more coherent and holistic understandings and actions can be generated. It can also mean connecting a variety of initiatives with similar agendas to aggregate and amplify their efforts, and avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts.

Most transformation agents today do not tend to think of themselves as shamans. But if they are in fact performing the three functions of the shaman—healing, sensemaking, and connecting in the service of a better world—then that, it seems to me, is what they are. And, given the crisis as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the world, many more of us need to tap into that same healing function in whatever line of work we are in.

Here is a link to the article on which this blog is based: Sandra Waddock. Thinking Transformational Change. Journal of Change Management, online first, 2020.

Sandra Waddock is the Councillor for the Forum’s Metanarrative Working Group,  Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, Chestnut Hill, MA USA. (

Further Reading:

Capra, Fritjof (1995). The Web of Life. New York: Anchor Doubleday.

Dow, J. (1986). Universal aspects of symbolic healing: A theoretical synthesis. American Anthropologist, 88(1), 56-69.

Egri, C. P., & Frost, P. J. (1991). Shamanism and change: Bringing back the magic in organizational transformation. Research in Organizational Change and Development, 5, 175-221.

Frost, P. J., & Egri, C. P. (1994). The shamanic perspective on organizational change and development. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 7(1), 7-23.

Korten, David C. (2015). Change the story, change the future: A living economy for a living Earth. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Lovins, L. H. (2016). Needed: A better story. Humanistic Management Journal, 1(1), 75-90.

Waddock, S. (2014). Intellectual Shamans: Management Academics Making a Difference. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Weick, K. E. (1976). Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21(1), 1-19.

[1] I would note as a point of interest that the reviewers of the paper did not like the references to shamans, so I omitted that reference.

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3 thoughts on “Thinking about System Transformation as a Shaman Might”

  1. Hello Sandra, I like your article and it is relevant in this time of pandemic covid 19. This crisis is an opportunity to pause, reflect, and redesign our selves and our world, toward a healthy, just, flourishing future. I like your invitation for us to become Shamans, to heal, make sense, and connect with each other. I identify with being a shaman. Thank you, Manuel Manga

  2. Thanks for the post Steve and the interesting food for thought Sandra. I’ve not read your full article Sandra but Steve’s blog on it has me thinking about the difference between thinking and becoming with regard to transformation and the Shaman, as well as the locus of transformation. Shamans ‘become’ through rituals of trance and extasis. The healing, sense making and connections they make draw directly from their lived and often physically and psychically arduous transformation initiation in becoming a shaman. It would be great hear about the extent to which ‘self-transformation’ is critical to the role of the transformation agents you refer to and ‘the thinking’. In the shaman lineage, an actor can be understood as a transformation agent or perhaps shaman. Through their transformation from self to other they use many of the tools of the shaman. Through their access to emotion, play, performance and use of processes specific to their craft, they ‘become other’ and enact narratives and non hierarchical rituals which heal, connect, and transform.

    1. Thanks, I think you’re right that we have to start by working on ourselves and your insights are very powerful.

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