Everything I Know About Business I Learned In The SCA: Part 3

The Society for Creative Anachronism is a bizarre, wonderful, ridiculous, multi-faceted organization full of colorful pageantry and even more colorful characters. I joined it when I was 16, and spent the next decade or so deeply involved. Though I don’t play in the SCA as much as I used to, many life lessons from that time still permeate my thinking.

This is part 3; you may be interested in:

Today we’re talking about lessons for community-builders; these may be people recognized as leaders, but it also includes people who work ceaselessly behind the scenes to ensure a safe, productive, and friendly environment.

Lessons For The Community

When I joined the Society, I was fascinated by the awards given. This guy’s an OTC! She got her OSC! They got their AoA! (Explanations of these awards and more are on the EK website.)

One notable example was an acquaintance of mine, an excellent fighter who quickly got his OTC (Order of the Tyger’s Combatant, given to the most impressive of up-and-coming combatants). And then…that was pretty much it. He was impossible to beat in combat, but didn’t really share what he knew, didn’t make much of an impact in melees (because he was off doing his own thing), didn’t lead a group. He pretty much topped out there. He was happy, but ended up a bit dissatisfied.

Recall the ‘holy trinity’? It turns out, each of those qualities are embodied in every part of the SCA: doing, supporting, teaching. It’s something of a cycle: first, I learn from you; then, I do the thing, supporting others; finally, I teach others to do the thing, and from there comes the next generation.

Each of these is crucial for a functioning group to survive past the first blush of success. In business, these other qualities are often given a derisive term like “soft skills”; but while they usually don’t show up in job requirements, they definitely show up in interview results and annual reviews. Your true leaders are the ones who not only perform well, but who bring others along, and support the company as a whole.

Those words are inscribed on the inside of the metal crowns of the Kingdom of Caid, passed down from ruler to ruler; they are the essence of the Society, and a sharp reminder to the bearer of that crown. The SCA is a shared hallucination; without that underlying belief, titles and metal crowns mean very little.

This existential statement underlies most of humanity’s interactions: we construct society out of nothing, built on our shared beliefs and institutions. There is an inherent arbitrariness, but one that has a surprising solidity.

Rulers sometimes get caught up in the pageantry and shows of deference, whether they be SCA royalty or the C-level executives of a corporation. Both would do well to remember this story:

A friend of mine, at the end of a long SCA event, found himself in line behind the then-King of Calontir. At the urinal. There were only two urinals, a long line, and everyone was eager to relieve themselves before the drive home. The king, notably, seemed to be dancing in his boots.

“Your majesty,” the man in front of them said, “please, go ahead of me.”

“You know,” the king said, “that’s the most useful form of deference I’ve had all reign.”

You rule because they believe.

Court is one of the most grand and stylized of all the SCAdian rituals. There are a number of key roles: the Principals, whose court it is, whether that be a Baron, the King and Queen, or just a Knight holding a quick ceremony on the battlefield to recognize a squire’s efforts. The principals are often accompanied by a number of retainers — a loud herald, who reads scrolls and makes proclamations, a standard bearer, a sword holder, a cup holder, the royal pillow adjuster, and so forth. Other royalty may join the principals on stage, and together, all these people face the audience. It’s their show.

The audience is everyone else; but, as the SCA is a participatory sport, Court largely consists of people being called up from the audience to receive some sort of accolade, recognition, or award. The tradition is to try to surprise the awardee, sometimes requiring elaborate misdirection — like the time my wife feigned disinterest at one event to get me to go to another event where I was to receive my AoA.

Sometimes, the friends and supporters of a participant want to carry out a Schtick, some sort of tomfoolery to perform on this poor friend of theirs so that they are being both embarrassed and rewarded. An example: a friend of mine, who had refused to ever receive his knighthood, was literally hog-tied by his squire-brothers and dragged into Court, there to receive the call to Vigil. (He declined to swear fealty, and is therefore a Master of Arms rather than a Knight…but that’s a topic for another day. And he knew what they were planning on doing, so the tying-up part is not as assaultive as it sounds.)

These schticks can be quite elaborate — but — importantly — no one facing the audience should be surprised.

It’s as simple as that. The herald and queen and retainers should all know that someone’s going to show up, carried in like a sack of meat, and be deposited bodily on the floor before the thrones. If they don’t know that, and someone comes running into Court yelling, that sword bearer might take his job a bit too seriously; but more importantly, no one on stage has an unmeasured reaction to the events. Not everyone is a good improviser, and some people hate surprises; the ones on stage are afforded the luxury of having no surprises during that time under the spotlight.

In business, the roles are blurrier, but the principles are the same. Often, this means shopping an idea around (some folks use the term nemawashi for this) before proposing it in a large group. This allows people to have their surprised reactions in private. Sometimes it means sending an idea up your reporting chain, so that reactions can be managed and accounted for ahead of time.

This sort of “whisper chamber” can seem frustrating, but is crucial in a larger organization — the communication channels are not broadcast, nor should they be, not for the ones whose decisions shape the future of the company as a whole and all its members.

Some years ago, a close friend of mine was the Head Cook for a mid-sized event — two hundred or so hungry people, all fed a lavish six-course meal. At the end of it, the King and Queen held Court, dispensing awards and largess and all the things that royalty owes its citizenry.

At the end, demanded that the Head Cook be brought before Court so she could be properly recognized. A messenger was sent.

He returned a little while later: the cook, politely, had refused.

Frustrated at this disobedience, the king sent the messenger again, who scurried off to communicate the Royal Displeasure; only to return, hat in hand, with a reiteration of the previous.

The King got up. Everyone in Court got up; that’s what you do when the crowns arise. The King headed for the kitchen, located conveniently close to the left side of the stage. He threw open the door, and went in, and lavished praise on the cook for such a sumptuous and varied meal.

The cook, up to her elbows in soapy water, thanked the king, and then ordered him to either leave her kitchen, or start helping with the wash; the flour was solidifying on the pans, and it was going to become a right mess if it sat any longer.

The king began to say something — but then threw off his cape, rolled up his brocade sleeves chased with golden thread, and grabbed a sponge. Court was adjourned, and all went on their way.

In industry, there comes a time when leadership must defer to the experts. If the flour’s drying on the pan, then you damn well wash the dishes now, not after some ceremony — even an important one.

I stole this one from Duke Sir (Sir) Cariadoc, also a Laurel and Pelican, though he words it “Don’t let the best be an enemy of the good.”

In all things, but especially in art, there is a tendency to converge on the extreme: the best, the highest, the fastest, the clearest, the most compelling. This does a disservice to all of the other things in contention. Nevertheless, it is our natural tendency, and we must combat it.

In business, this comes out in two ways: first, analysis paralysis, where a team feels it must find the optimal solution, instead of finding one that works well and calling it sufficient. This is a form of waste.

It also leads to teams which are reticent to give out recognition for everyday good things, instead saving them for some ground-shaking event that may never come. This hurts morale, and impairs people’s ability to figure out what is valuable at all! If you are celebrating the little things, your team will be well-positioned to weather this as well.

Things come and go. In the SCA, the king and queen are gone in six months, even if they might someday return. (There are many “Once and Future Kings”, now Dukes.) Because SCA monarchy are chosen by combat, there is definitely some…variety…in how the role is performed. An incoming monarch may want to make big changes, and sometimes that happens.

In contrast, the officers of local groups change over much more slowly; seneschals, notably, with their secret seneschal guidebooks, do a huge amount to make things go smoothly month-to-month, year-to-year; but so do local leaders, with or without a fancy title.

So while the royals can change culture locally while they reign, unpopular changes are unlikely to survive the next changeover. Generally, a monarch won’t directly countermand the acts of their predecessors; but things often get amended, limited, or just left to rot. And that’s okay; that’s the larger group deciding what is, and what isn’t, a persistent part of their culture.

In business, there is a similar interplay between the leadership and the connective tissue. When a newly-minted manager joins a team, they may be tempted to try to make large changes immediately. Sometimes this goes well; usually it goes very poorly. No one likes the new scheduling software; the devs liked the old build system, and are quietly using it on the side; or people leave in droves. As with You Rule Because They Believe, it’s crucial for those nominally in charge to remember that everyone is a person, everyone has their own goals, and that authority works best when it is granted by the governed, not taken.

The most important lesson I learned from the SCA, of course, is to have a story for everything. Doesn’t matter what it was, it’s happened to someone, somewhere, and possibly even to you.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the story is actually true—the saying in the SCA is “No shit, there we were”, because sometimes the stories seem unbelievable—but something like that happened to someone, and what’s important is the telling of them. Stories are a way of passing on what is important in a culture, and a way of understanding the world.

In short, stories are how we learn. Feel free to add your own in the comments, or just give a few claps for this set of shaggy-dog stories.

Obligate infovore. Antiviral blogger. All posts made with 100% recycled electrons, sustainably crafted by artisanal artisans. He/him/his.