How to Make a Decision Like a Tribe

Next time you’re in a meeting, watch the rituals of business: the dueling egos, turf protection, talking-without-listening. Maybe it’s time for a different kind of ritual. Something old.

If most of the work of business consists of making decisions, Helena Light Hadley, Marriott Lodging’s director of total quality management, has no doubt why business often doesn’t work. “Most people are frustrated by the way decisions get made,” she says. “We all try to be troopers. People may complain, but then they say, ‘Well, I trust the leadership to come up with the best thinking.’ But behind closed doors people wonder if the leaders really do have all the information, especially when the decisions affect people who’ve had no input.”


Recently Hadley experienced an alternative approach to corporate decision making. When she arrived at a ballroom of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts to participate in an annual meeting of business leaders committed to organizational learning, she expected to enter the familiar world of round tables, linen tablecloths, and name tags. Instead she entered a ceremonial lodge. Rather than sitting through a standard agenda with flip charts, overheads, and breakout groups, she and 35 other participants from some of the most traditional U.S. companies — General Motors, AT&T, Unisys, Northern Telecom, Bank of Boston, Aetna, McKinsey & Co. — and even the World Bank found themselves participating in a tribal council ceremony.

At the door to the darkened room stood WindEagle, a powerful medicine woman in her late 40s with a thick waterfall of silver and black hair, wearing a flowing skirt and shawl. WindEagle quietly feathered purifying sage smoke onto the participants as one by one they slipped inside the room. Flickering candlelight revealed ceremonial weavings draped from the ceiling, creating a teepee-like shape in the room. Gone were the usual tables and chairs, replaced by flowers, candles and stones forming a fire circle, and in each corner stood a tripod with more weavings and painted shields.

The group silently arranged itself in a circle, sitting on low-backed chairs without legs, and listened intently, if anxiously, to the introduction coming from RainbowHawk, a compact, stocky, 72-year-old medicine man with weathered features, bright blue eyes, and long, silver hair tied back in a braid.


This was ceremony time. For the next eight hours, the group would join in a ceremony, a medicine wheel council, a communal decision-making tool that would teach them how to replace contentious debate with constructive conversation. The tribal version of Robert’s Rules of Order was in effect: the members of the circle would pass a talking stick to indicate who had the floor — no interrupting allowed. That person would begin by identifying himself or herself by name and end by saying, “I have spoken.” The group would then respond, “Ho!” — the tribal equivalent of “You have been heard.”

In the ceremony they would learn about the Four Shields and the Four Attentions, and then they would sit as chiefs at the eight points of the compass to hold a council. Each of the chiefs would have one unique perspective to offer the group; the wisdom of the council would emerge as the perspectives came together, one at a time, in a circular ceremony. “It is a way to bring balance into a group,” WindEagle explained. “A way to put things in perspective without adversarialism.”

That search for balance and perspective is embedded in the design of the ceremony and woven into the patterns that decorate the ceremonial lodge. Just as ancient tribes needed a tool to help them reach decisions that reflected the group’s collective knowledge, so today’s business “tribes” can benefit from a tool that breaks down organizational barriers, explores assumptions in a nonconfrontational style, and changes the mind-set, focus, and pace of the conversations that lead to decisions.


As the participants learned, these ancient teachings or Earth Wisdom, offered by RainbowHawk and WindEagle, who run the Ehama Institute in Los Gatos, California, can feel out of place in the fast-paced, technologically sophisticated, modern business world. And it’s unlikely that hundreds of companies will be turning their conference rooms into ceremonial lodges anytime soon. But what the council ceremony offers is a set of insights and techniques that change how and why decisions get made.

Eight hours later, when the council was over, Helena Light Hadley left with a new insight into decision making. “The tribal approach makes a lot of sense,” she says. “When a decision is put in the context of `the greater good,’ you stop acting so territorial. You see the needs of the entire system, not just the little piece you’re hanging on to.”

How the Council Ceremony Works

The teachings of Earth Wisdom aren’t hip. They won’t be the basis for the next business best-seller or rival reengineering for consultants’ billable hours. They are worth understanding precisely because they endure: this tool for making group decisions dates back to the Americas’ earliest inhabitants — with links to the Mayans and Incas.


The actual ceremony that RainbowHawk and WindEagle practice stems from an oral tradition. According to this tradition, representatives of the Iroquis, Delaware, Cherokee, Choctow, Osage, the plains people and other tribes came together in 1879 in Oklahoma in a large council; by then, these tribes had realized that their indigenous culture would soon be overrun by the dominant white culture. To preserve their tribal wisdom, they passed on 37 belts to selected medicine women — the last of these belts that they had — that conveyed their sacred teachings through glyphs. The belts were passed from keeper to keeper, trained medicine women and men, from generation to generation. Among those to whom this tradition passed was Hyemeyohsts Storm, a Cheyenne, who in 1973 published Seven Arrows, which recounts many of these teachings. It was through Storm that RainbowHawk and WindEagle became keepers of this tradition.

Underlying the council ceremony is an elaborate mandala-like design, tying together the cardinal and noncardinal directions of the compass, universal forces, and a process of group consultation and consensus-building. In its most fully articulated version, the design not only constructs a medicine wheel for council discussions but also builds an overall social vision. For the purposes of their teaching to businesspeople, RainbowHawk and WindEagle simplify the design into three essential elements: the Four Shields of Balance, the Four Attentions, and the Eight Chiefs, each of whom has a specific perspective to represent in the council ceremony.

The Four Shields, which correspond to the four cardinal points of the compass, are the image of human wholeness and balance. In the east is the Shield of the Magical Child, which represents the spirit of creativity, playfulness, imagination, illumination, and enlightenment. The east’s responsibility is to maintain the tribe’s freedom to move and to play with the design of life; all discussion originates in the east. In the south is the Shield of the Little Child, the place of trust and innocence, where awe and wonder, emotional flexibility, curiosity, and adventurousness-the attributes of a young child are paramount. In the west is the Shield of the Nurturer, responsible for recognizing what is needed to heal, nurture, teach, balance, and care for the tribe’s people. In the north is the Shield of the Warrior/Warrioress, with the attributes of courage, resourcefulness, and strategy. It is the place of knowledge and wisdom, clarity and action.


The Four Attentions, set at the noncardinal points of the compass, provide the counterbalance to the Four Shields. Here again, each point is associated with a set of attributes. In the southeast is Be Present, a reminder to pay attention to the tastes, smells, sounds, and touches of the moment. In the southwest is Guards Out. Here the question is, “Are we awake, guarding our focus, staying true to our target or goal?” In the northwest is Look for the Teaching. This direction asks, “Are we attentive to the meaning of each event or happening? What should we be learning from this situation?” And in the northeast is Let the Little Child Play, a reminder to stay open to vital information, to be playful with the forces at work in any situation, to use challenge as a way to learn.

In the council ceremony, two chiefs — one male and one female — sit at each of the eight cardinal and noncardinal points of the compass. In what is perhaps the most important feature of the ceremony, each pair of chiefs must adopt the perspective or attributes that correspond to their position on the compass. Just as the Four Shields and the Four Attentions each describe a sensibility, so the chiefs represent particular ways of looking at experience or evaluating a situation.

In the east are the Heyoehkah Chiefs, who are responsible for speaking to the tribe’s freedom and creativity. In the southeast are the Peace Chiefs, who focus on the current situation facing the tribe, with “present conditions and appreciation” as the most important verbal cues. In the south are the War Chiefs, who address emotion, in particular “power” and “danger” as represented in the issue before the tribe. The Medicine Singer Chiefs in the southwest speak to purpose and direction. They must answer the question, “Is this proposal on target for the tribe?”


In the west are the Women Chiefs. “Maintenance” and “balance” are the key words in their deliberation; they must concern themselves with healing and nurturing, protecting and caring for the tribe. The Council Chiefs in the northwest speak to timing and interrelatedness. In offering their council, they consider the question, “Is this the right time?” In particular, they focus on the flow and turn of events in the life of the tribe. In the north are the Hunter/Worker Chiefs. Their focus is strategy and implementation, their key words “clarity” and “action.” Finally in the northeast are the Law Dog Chiefs. They speak to “integrity” and “vitality,” and must determine whether the council has spoken sufficiently to reach a decision, or whether the ceremony is incomplete and the wheel must go around again.

The council ceremony always begins in the east and proceeds clockwise around the circle of the medicine wheel, with each chief speaking to the issue before the tribe and representing his or her designated perspective. The talking stick passes from chief to chief; each chief rises to speak and identifies himself or herself, identifies the perspective from which he or she speaks, and then offers wisdom on the issue, usually talking for less than 10 minutes. In the center of the medicine wheel are the Zero Chiefs, whose job is to ensure that the process is honored and that the discussion moves as it should.

Because of the design of the medicine wheel, the quality of the discussion is dramatically different from a traditional Western meeting. Each chief adds to the council from his or her perspective, but none of the chiefs debates with or directly contradicts any other. The ceremony is a council, not an argument; understanding does not come out of conflict but accumulates and then emerges.


Not all council ceremonies lead to consensus. If the ceremony has been completed and the council has not reached an agreement, one of two things can happen. The group can suspend the ceremony while it collects its energy for another attempt. Or if there is an emergency and a decision must be reached, the council can give someone the authority to decide, with the understanding that not everyone is in accord. As WindEagle says: “If there’s agreement, that’s good. If there’s disagreement, at least we’ve heard it in depth and we can establish what it is. This process is not about positions, it’s about people. It’s about perspectives and wisdom. It creates relationship, connection, and respect. When you speak and you’re different from me, I value your opinion. If we can live that way, we’ll be wiser in the actions we take.”

What distinguishes the council ceremony as a decision-making technique is the nature and quality of the discussion. The actual protocols are about as different from most corporate decision-making practices as possible. “When the council comes together, it’s a cumulative process, rather than a debating process,” says RainbowHawk. “Being a chief in the council setting means stepping forward for the whole. Each person adds to it and as each adds, the container of wisdom gets fuller.”

How the Ceremony Helps

It’s not difficult to see analogues between the eight perspectives of the chiefs and the kinds of outlooks that could inform better business decisions. What company wouldn’t do better if someone analyzed each situation in terms of its “power” and “danger”? But does the council ceremony itself offer benefits to contemporary business practices?


Eric Vogt, 47, has no doubts. Vogt’s establishment credentials are impeccable: he is a former Harvard Business School lecturer and a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. Vogt is now president of MicroMentor Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the interactive educational technology company that sponsored the Charles Hotel conference at which RainbowHawk and WindEagle appeared. He is also cofounder and chairman of InterClass, a consortium of large companies looking to explore the most advanced features of organizational learning. Vogt invited RainbowHawk and WindEagle to preside over InterClass’s fifth annual meeting, and to run it as a council ceremony.

“Many aspects of ceremony could enhance the quality and process of corporate thinking and decision making,” Vogt says. “These include the creation of a space for reflective thinking, the use of storytelling to set a playful and creative mood, the process of tuning up a community of people who feel in harmony with each other, and the balancing of perspectives that need to be incorporated into decision making. Organizations don’t have a decision-making methodology that includes all of these aspects. Ceremony brings them all together.”

Other businesspeople who have attended a council ceremony organized by RainbowHawk and WindEagle echo Vogt’s sentiments. For example, Jim Chrz, 52, Chevrolet’s director of total customer enthusiasm, is a traditional businessman in a traditional business. But after twice experiencing the decision-making approach of a council ceremony, Chrz counts himself a convert.


“I’m in the car business and I’m not a tree hugger,” he says. “But everyone in business today is on a journey. We’re evolving away from the quick-fix, bottom-line school toward an approach that looks for the relationship between things. Sure it’s hard to see people in Chevrolet participating with feathers and smoke,” Chrz acknowledges. “But we’ve spent time creating a consensus in the company based on values. You could say we’re already doing something like this. Besides, if we want visionary leaders who are capable of understanding ambiguity, what could be better?”

Lessons from the Council Ceremony

In addition to these general benefits, people who have experienced the ceremony approach have found that it offers concrete lessons that could help business improve its decision making.

  • Good decisions begin with listening. The Western give-and-take meeting emphasizes talking rather than listening. Businesspeople come into a meeting prepared to give their presentations — not to listen to the contributions of others. And the debate format encourages people to begin formulating their responses while the other side is speaking, rather than listening and reserving judgment. The first element of a council ceremony, on the other hand, is careful listening.
  • Make important decisions feel important. Turning an important decision into a trivial discussion runs the risk of trivializing the decision. The council ceremony elevates the consideration of the matter at hand by using distinct rituals, solemn and more formal speech patterns, and extraordinary titles and ceremonial objects. In such an environment, people think and speak more carefully, listen more attentively, and, perhaps, act more wisely.
  • Emphasize information, not advocacy. U.S. business follows, for the most part, a legal model: decision-making sessions are minitrials, with people who advocate certain positions. When the decision comes down, someone wins and someone loses. The council ceremony emphasizes points of view, not debating points. Instead of determining winners and losers, the tribe must come up with a decision that serves the interests of the entire group.
  • Truth, not turf. Most decision making is structured around preexisting turf: marketing versus manufacturing, line versus staff, foreign versus domestic, headquarters versus field. People argue for a position based on where they sit or what they do. In the council ceremony, those preestablished positions are the first thing to go. A marketing manager may find herself sitting as a Law Dog Chief, having to determine whether the discussion has moved to a decision rather than concern herself with marketing interests; a lawyer from the general counsel’s office may be seated as one of the Women Chiefs, speaking on behalf of nurturing the organization. The reframing of roles is so dramatic that it forces a reframing of thinking.
  • A slower process yields better decisions. Rather than looking for the fastest answer to a pressing problem, the council process accepts the need for careful, in-depth reflection. With the understanding that implementation is faster, easier, and more successful if it comes after all implications of an issue have been thrashed out, the process doesn’t address the question of action until the latter stages of the discussion. “By the time you get around to talking about action,” notes Eric Vogt, “the whole council has had a chance to speak and feels engaged in the results.”

It’s unlikely that the council ceremony will suddenly sweep into the boardrooms and meeting rooms of U.S. business. And it’s difficult to imagine all elements of the exercise fitting into the decision-making routines with which most executives feel comfortable. But it’s not difficult to use the eight perspectives of the chiefs to break a group out of its lockstep decision-making process. And Earth Wisdom as presented in this way of a council ceremony is an intriguing and enlightening tool — a reminder that the secret to finding the right answer is in asking the right question.

As WindEagle told the council at the Charles Hotel: “The first people had questions, and they were free. The second people had answers, and they became enslaved.”

Peter Carlin ( writes on business and culture from Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in “The New York Times Magazine,” “The Los Angeles Times Magazine”, and “Men’s Journal.”