The Superstitious Leader

jack-o-lanternsIf Thanksgiving is associated with gratitude and Valentine’s Day with love, Halloween is the holiday with a dark side. Tracing it back to its roots, Halloween is the day when evil spirits visit the earth. To keep ourselves safe from these ghouls, we dress up in costumes, carve jack-o’-lanterns, and treat-or-treat. These superstitions are engrained in the ways we recognize this and many other holidays. Superstitions are engrained in leadership, as well.

You may think you’re immune from the seduction of superstition. After all, you know better than to believe a carved pumpkin is needed to scare off ghosts. In that same vein, I’m sure you don’t have a lucky pair of socks, a go-to lunch spot for important meetings, or an obsessive/compulsive-like pattern when completing tasks.

There is nothing wrong with a little superstition. After all, it is merely a way to create some understanding of cause and effect. The trick its to utilize it in a manner that promotes higher performance and a better work product.

Cultural anthropologist George Gmelch conducted an extensive study on baseball players’ pre- and post-game rituals… and there are many. Batters are a particularly superstitious group. Gmelch found that because batting has so many factors to consider and the batter has so little time to weigh the alternatives, it becomes almost impossible to predict the outcome. As a result, when someone goes up to bat, he may adjust his sleeves (Ichiro Suzuki), unstrap and re-strap his gloves (Nomar Garciaparra), or scrawl a Hebrew symbol into the dirt (Wade Boggs).

Superstition is typically so entrenched in a culture that it has become part of the belief system. It then becomes less a way of dealing with unlikely events and more to describe difficult-to-explain events. In the late 1920s, noted anthropologist Edward Evan “E. E.” Evans-Pritchard was studying a tribe in the Sudan. In one anecdote a boy stubbed his toe on a tree stump. The cut became infected and the boy blamed it on witchcraft. Our Western beliefs teach us that the stump grew naturally, the boy ran into it on his own, and dirt caused the infection. Interestingly, Evans-Pritchard writes that the boy already knew these things, but did not feel it fully explained everything.

While you may judge someone for believing in what you consider to be a “less sophisticated” religion or mock a baseball player for “silly” preparatory practices, this yearning to manage the unknown is precisely why each of us create and adhere to our superstitions. It is a natural way of confronting situations that present no obvious pattern.

Individuals need to feel as if we are able to influence the outcomes of events. Thus superstitions emerge to help create some of control and fulfill a basic need for consistency and predictability. This is why leaders must recognize the superstitions in their workplace. This is not to condemn, but to ensure that the superstition is not harmful or distracting. And if your organization has an overabundance of superstitions, you need to consider that:

  1. those on your team want to feel like they have more control over their surroundings and the decisions that directly affect them;
  2. your leadership is not consistent; and/or
  3. incentives, discipline, and decisions are not predictable.

This Halloween, the scariest fright you might experience is giving up some power so those you lead feel a greater sense of control, consistency, and predictability. If they want more control, work on your delegation. If you aren’t consistent, determine how you want to be perceived and act that way. And if the workplace factors are not predictable, work to increase transparency so the team can see why decisions are made. This may feel like a trick at first, but the treats will follow soon after.