Rituals and Gifts | Julian Stodd’s Learning Blog


Rituals are schematics generated by communities over time, sometimes gifted or copied between them, and evolutionary as generations pass. Some things (like shaking hands or waving goodbye) are so seemingly innate that we rarely stop to notice them. Others, like the ‘inverted comma’ fingers, or the ritual of raising a hand on Teams, are new but have spread rapidly.

Joining a community often involves figuring out their unique rituals (like who sits where, how they tidy the tea cups away, or whether you buy a cake for everyone on your birthday) and deciding whether, or not, to conform to them.

Failing to conform, or breaching a ritual (like being the only person not to contribute to the leaving card fund (even though it’s only your second day in role) may carry reputation consequences or even lead to exclusion. Conversely, following rituals (even if you believe them to be a vacuous waste of time) may lead others to believe that you belong (even if you can’t stand to be there).

I’ve been pondering rituals as i’ve been handing out a gift at the start of a programme: an expedition journal for people to capture their thoughts and notes as we travel (it’s a three month programme). As notebooks go, it’s a pretty nice one, but it’s not specifically useful. Most people take notes on their laptop or phone, or they already have a notebook. There is no global shortage of them. So the artefact itself is not necessarily of value.

But a gift, and an associated ritual, may imbue the object with value. It may make it worth more than what it cost me (with the caveat that the ‘worth’ may not be measured in dollars – it may be measured in trust, belief, belonging, or even pride). So i chose to carry the notebooks to Birmingham – which was a pain because they were heavy – which allowed me to hand them to people personally. And as i did so, to say some words about how we are connected and how our journey will look going forwards. In fact, i ‘gifted’ all the books to the first person, and then each person gifted one book forwards to the next, with their own words.

Is this simply a waste of time? Well maybe. Or maybe not. If i’d posted them with a printed letter, probably. But by being together, and choosing our words carefully, probably not. It’s not going to make all the difference in the world to our journey, but it may make some difference. Because we are giving value to each other, investing something in each other.

Naturally when we discussed this the word ‘Authenticity’ came up: it’s typically the top word that people associate with leadership that they value. But Authenticity may not be a ‘thing’ so much as a judgement upon actions. Again, it’s something we invest in people, or paint upon them.

Our social context is complex, unknowable, in that it’s not quantifiable or directly observable, and yet also, if we are genuine in our action, it’s something we can engage into. Whilst we can’t mechanise nor optimise it, we can engage with it. Had i posted 9,000 other notebooks to every other leader in the Organisation, it would probably have had little value. None of them have any idea who i am, or what the book is for. It would cease to have value as we had never, together, imbued it.

#WorkingOutLoud on aspects of Social Leadership

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.


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