During the fall, the sounds of college football can be heard throughout our home on Saturday afternoons. Recently, I found it interesting to learn Nick Saban, head coach of the University of Alabama’s football team, and arguably one of the best college’s best football coaches (full disclosure – we are a Big 10 household) say that he has a specific ritual after winning a game on the road. He and his wife will get in their car for their drive home from the airport – and put on the song “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.

I found this quote from his weekly radio show explaining it in more detail:

"That means we won the game," Saban said. "It means Ms. Terry and I are listening to the song we really enjoy, love and like, and we're together, so it's good.”

I don’t know Nick Saban but it is not hard to understand the feeling he and his wife have on those Saturday night rides home.

While athletes and fans are notoriously superstitious, it did spark my curiosity about the difference between habits (which I shared recently here) and rituals.

Habit – a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up

Ritual – a ceremonial act or action; an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner

So, it seems a habit or a set of habits can be a ritual but a ritual isn’t necessarily a habit. In other words, a ritual is intentional while a habit often is not. For example, in baseball, a defensive player on the field may tap the inside of his glove as a habit while a batter may have a specific routine he goes through each time he steps into the batter’s box. It is an intentional routine and is done to set himself up for success. It is his batting ritual.

Watching the celebration after the Cubs made it into the World Series this weekend, I also thought about how the act of popping the champagne cork is more of a success ritual than actually drinking the champagne itself.

There are other types of rituals that mark success as well. The venerable New York Stock Exchange long represents American business. The sound of the opening and closing bell can often be heard on any story that discusses the daily numbers. Originally needed to be loud enough to be heard across the trading floor, the ringing of the bell signifies the orderly opening and closing of trade at the exchange each trading day. A practice in place since the 1870’s.

Today, each trading area has its own bell connected by one control panel. The ritual of “ringing” in the opening or closing bell as a guest is now reserved for newly listed companies on the exchange or other companies or organizations celebrating a recognized milestone. It is, in fact, a ritual of success

(Did you know the New York Stock Exchange “Bell” has its own web page? Here you can learn about the history of the bell, watch the opening and closing bell videos and learn about upcoming guests who will be ringing the bell.)

One successful entrepreneur I know always reconciles all her expenses the night before a product launch for that project. It reminds her that she has to be in balance and “paid up” before she can ask others to purchase from her. She tells the story of the one time she was launching a particularly important new product and she thought she did not have time to complete her pre-launch ritual. The launch went well but she bounced a number of checks because an automatic transfer didn’t go through. Of course, there was a practical reason to do this in advance of a launch but it is also a confirmation of her efforts in planning and doing a good job. It is her ritual of success.

It is perhaps why many companies follow the lead from sports in leadership rituals. Paolo Guenzi, co-author of the book Leading Teams – Tools and Techniques for Successful Team Leadership from the Sports World, contends that ritual indeed is part of high performance both in sports teams and companies and lists several examples in this (short) Harvard Business Review article. These are pillars of what makes success rituals so important in sport and business:

  • It creates a shared identity
  • It brings team members’ external networks into the family (i.e. team or company)
  • It stimulates emotions and reduces anxiety
  • It reinforces desired behaviors

In fact, he contends in turnaround situations, both smart coaches and business leaders would be well advised to institute more rituals that create a sense of shared identity and common purpose resulting in productive behavior.

I think this is why many companies (and sports teams) adopt “themes” around important initiatives with events that mark the culmination of success. Sometimes thought to be “corny” or “silly”, the ability to identify with a team working toward the same goal is often one of the top reasons employees like where they work and are fulfilled in their jobs.

And it’s the feeling from the rituals we keep that remind of our goals and successes.

Like ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange or driving down an Alabama road listening to the Rolling Stones with your wife.

#RollTide. Maybe.

(Checkout this week's new podcast appearance here!)