The ‘Shamanization’ of Tech CEOs

Why the switch from reliable gray suits to charisma? In his book In search of a corporate savior, Khurana pointed to the issue of ownership. From the 70s onwards, institutional investors such as mutual funds and insurance companies began to buy large chunks of companies. At the same time, stock trading became America’s new pastime. These two changes meant that outsiders began to care about who was running the companies – and those outsiders wanted flash.

“CEOs could afford to be bland and colorless when they were less visible in society,” Khurana wrote. But with the public owning their firms and overseeing their leaders, civility was less of an option.

Charismatic performance has only become more important in technology. “As a CEO, your job is to sell to all kinds of different people,” said the Boston-based founder and CEO. “First and foremost, you have to convince people to join the company and buy into the mission. You also have to sell to customers.”

Investors are especially important. Many tech companies have been surviving on investment capital for years, which is why investor perceptions are critical. “To do a role well, you have to build a bit of a persona,” said the founder and CEO in San Francisco. “Investors are often attracted to founders who have some kind of unique charisma or personality –specialI mean, that’s the word they would use.”

While none of them follow restrictive diets, these founders understand the social pressures that compel such performances.

The need to be special is heightened by the uncertainty and gigaton size of the potential rewards. Founders must convince investors that with time and dollars, their companies will turn into fat, pearly unicorns. But they have little that sets them apart, especially at the beginning. “There is no income. No profit. There is an idea, which I don’t want to reject,” said Khurana. “But that leaves you with very little to assess, other than what school the person went to, who they know, where they worked.” Like shamans back then, founders rely on personal qualities to convince investors that they can do something almost miraculous.

While the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey talked about the occasional post on podcasts, in Twitter posts, and during an online Q&A hosted by WIRED. “Counterintuitive,” he tweeted“but I find that I have much more energy and focus, I feel healthier and happier, and my sleep is much deeper.”

Maybe. But if the scientific literature is any indication, his self-denial isn’t all about laser focus and cozy nights. Intermittent fasting looks promising for people with obesity or diabetes, but studies testing the short-term effects of fasting on sleep and cognitive function usually show either no changes or deficiencies.

So, are CEO-shamans putting on a show? People everywhere intuitively understand that self-denial and other shamanic practices cultivate power. Being human, CTOs probably draw the same conclusions. Thus, at least part of their decision to engage in shamanic practices may stem from a sincere desire to be special.

But humans are also skilled performers. We pay close attention to which identities are valued and then prepare to accommodate them. We are guided by automatic, often selfish psychological processes and then deceive ourselves with noble justifications. “All the world is not a stage, of course,” wrote sociologist Erving Goffman, “but it is not easy to pinpoint the key ways in which it is not.” If CEOs are anything like the rest of us, their personalities (including shamanic elements) are adjusted for recognition and then rationalized.

Regardless of the motivation, the outcome is the same. Look at the past as biohack and transhumanism and many tech executives look a lot like the trance dancers and witch doctors of past societies. As long as people seek miracles, others will compete to appear as miracle workers, forever resurrecting ancient and time-tested techniques. Shamanism is neither lost wisdom nor superstition. Rather, it is a reflection of human nature, a fascinating tradition that is evolving everywhere as people turn to each other to produce the extraordinary.

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