The Tuesday after Labour Day has always been the New Year to me. There is something in the ritual of the first day of school, with new school supplies and clothes, that seems more like a new year than January 1st. Back to School has always been an exciting new beginning for me – first as a student, now as a professor.
One of the most powerful things a professor can do is establish a powerful learning environment on the first day of classes. I do this by welcoming my students, learning their names, playing music, and doing lots of fun, active learning exercises in that first class. Why do I do this? If learning is engaging, students are more likely to show up to an 8:30am class, even when they don’t want to get out of bed.
As leaders, we can learn from the first day of school. Each organization has a calendar, a rhythm that it follows throughout the year. Each organization has its energy cycle, the highs and lows. By recognizing this cycle, leaders can help their teams manage the energy cycle. We can also use ritual to celebrate and to create a sense of belonging. Many companies use the annual United Way or other community charity campaign as a way to engage employees in fun, creative release.
Rituals are often about food or play. They often have music, and sometimes have physical activity. They are clearly a ritual, with clear rules. They are usually marked as “different” from the everyday norms of this organization.
My favourite organizational ritual at my current institution is the annual Chair Derby, to raise money for United Way. Professors and staff dress up into silly costumes and race through an obstacle course, with one person sitting on the chair, and another pushing. The students love seeing the faculty and staff in their full on glorious silliness (you should see our past Principal, dressed as Professor McGonnagall) . The race humanizes faculty and engages people in a joyful way. I usually dress as the devil on Halloween. (Not all my students get the joke!)
One of the six aspects of strategic leadership is the development and maintenance of organizational culture. Good leaders understand rhythms and rituals, using them to engage employees. Look for the predictable ups and downs in your year. How do these ups and downs relate to your organization’s objectives? Once you know what you want to communicate, then you can plan rituals to reinforce both engagement and direction. Are your current rituals intentional? Do they fit with your organization’s strategy? Are they engaging? If not, you have some work to do.