Wizards, Heroes, and Shamans: Where Stories and Narratives Fit into Transformational Change

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What do wizards, heroes, and shamans have to do with achieving the systemic transformations that are now needed to ensure that our wonderful planet Earth can continue to support the human project…not to mention that of other beings? At the Leverage Point Conference (held at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany, in February 2019), these somewhat unusual characters seemed to be at the center of attention. It all began with keynote speaker Ioan Fazey’s opening idea that we all need to become wizards—wise persons—to seek out a new way of being in the world that allows what we know, our knowledge, to be put to wise use in the service of a better future. Why wizards and wisdom? Well, Fazey defined wisdom as having three components: knowledge and research, ethics, and beauty or aesthetics. That definition comports very well with my own definition of wisdom as combining the three core elements of the true (systems understanding), the good (moral imagination or the capacity to see the ethical aspects of situations), and the beautiful (aesthetic sensibility) in the service of the greater good. Certainly, wisdom that combines all of these elements is needed if we are to be able to transform our systems in a desired direction.

That theme was very much continued by the second keynote speaker, Elena Bennett who emphasized the importance of good stories and narratives that can help us all connect in ways that sway hearts, mindsets, and beliefs that provide a new basis for reshaping our world. Good stories, of course, often have heroes. The classic hero’s story, found in virtually all societies, is that of the hero’s journey or quest, so-called by the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, which is so prevalent globally that is it that it is called a monomyth. As Campbell put it in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the story (with its many variations) goes something like this: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from the mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Of course, in the realm of system transformation, as became clear over the course of the conference, the ‘hero’ is not singular (nor, necessarily, male), but rather needs to emerge from all of us working together in a whole variety of ways, collectively. We together need to be the heroes. Further, the one who becomes the hero in the end, did not start out that way, but rather was an ordinary person at the beginning. Perhaps even more importantly, heroes always have helpers or aides when they are called to their adventure, so they do not accomplish their journey of transformation to a better world—on their own. They need to gather strength and resources from allies who help them on the journey. So do we need to find allies, resources, and strength on this journey of transformation.

So why shamans? Well, like wizards, an idea that carries magical connotations, shamans are the healers, connectors, and sensemakers who help bring about a better world, ideas developed in my book Intellectual Shamans. Transformational change agents too are often shamans. That point was not lost on conference organizers, who brought in Gogo Dineo Ndlanzi, founder of the Gogo Dineo Ndlanzi Institute of Spiritual Healing as another keynote speaker and a sangoma or spiritual teacher, life coach and professional African storyteller, poet, writer, dancer, and facilitator. Bringing an inspirational dance with drumming and singing, Ms. Ndlanzi articulated the shaman’s journey into healing practice and to using the three core tasks of the shaman—healing, connecting, and sensemaking to serve the greater good. The journey to being this type of healer—or hero, since the journeys are much the same—is not easy, and represents in a very real way a calling to greater purpose. But as she pointed out to her enraptured audience, we all carry a bit of these Indigenous learning systems in us (because we all have that ancestry). Recognizing this wisdom—becoming wizards in a sense, can enable us to act so that we really begin to take joy in the diversity of who we are, really hear each other, listening well so that we can prepare for action.

So, think what shamans, wizards, and heroes do, which I synthesize into the shaman’s three tasks of healing, connecting, and sensemaking in the service of a better world. We who attended this conference—and beyond—know the world itself is in need of healing. Who do we need to connect to and for what purposes to bring about needed changes? Since shamans in traditional cultures believe that sickness or dis-ease happens when there is something wrong with the cultural mythology that surrounds who or what is sick, how can we use our sensemaking capacities as shamans and wizards to envision and articulate a better world to which we can all then aspire?

Here is where the importance of narrative and stories—a common theme throughout the conference—becomes obvious. The narratives and stories that form our current mythologies in the world have brought us collectively to a place where planetary resources can no longer keep up with the pace at which they are being used. New stories, new narratives are needed to inspire new ways of thinking—new paradigms and mindsets that transcend old ones—for as Donella Meadows pointed out in her important paper on Leverage Points for system change, which inspired the conference, it is in changing and transcending mindsets and paradigms that the most powerful lever is to be found.

So: what are the new stories and narratives we need to tell, from our positions as wizards, (collective) heroes, and shamans to begin to really change mindsets?

Sandra Waddock is the Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. She is a member of the SDG Transformation Forum’s Council and Metanarrative Working Group. (waddock@bc.edu)

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