About four minutes into Gladiator—my favorite Russel Crowe movie—the Roman General, Maximus Decimus Meridius (Crowe), introduces a ritual he would repeat several times in the film: just before battle begins he kneels on one knee, grabs a handful of earth, rubs it between his hands, and then deeply inhales as he cups his soiled hands to his face.
Just a power move you think? No, it’s much more. Maximus accomplishes two things with this ritual:
1) Clears his mind
Maximus was doing his version of hitting the clear key of your mind as a way to improve relationships, creativity, and productivity, or in his situation—kill and avoid being killed. Just as you clear a calculator’s clear key to make sure unwanted values don’t pollute the answer to your current problem, clearing your mind of distracting thoughts and emotions also facilitates better outcomes.
The trick is to remember to do this as you move from situation to situation, meeting to meeting in the course of your typical non-life-threatening day.
Before a big game, top athletes often take a few moments to mentally prepare; soldiers do the same before a military operation. Some use a prayer, some use a pep talk, some repeat a pledge or an oath of duty. For some, it’s all the above. Whatever it is, it should work for you.
Characteristics of a good clearing ritual
Whatever you design to hit your mind’s clear key it should bring your complete attention to the task at hand so that you are not preoccupied and can participate fully.
Maximus’ ritual may not work for you—although it would be fun to try—so invent something that does.
You can choose meditation, prayer, affirmation, movement (as Maximus does) or pep talk, but take care that it meets the following conditions:
It calms you.
Your ritual should bring your breathing and heart rate down. It must help center you and allow you to think of what’s important to focus on now. Think of Maximus’ deep inhale as he smells the earth of the battlefield.
Your ritual should help you leave other concerns ‘at the door’ where you can pick them up when you leave. This is not about suppression, but focus. You can resume thinking, even worrying about other things, just not for the next few minutes or hours.
Makes you mindful
Impending doom has a way of focusing the mind that most normal everyday situations—meetings, conversations, and work sessions—can’t, and so Maximus’ ritual had the advantage of never losing its power, but for us it’s important that our invented ritual never becomes rote and ineffective because we do it mindlessly out of habit.
With mindfulness comes meaning. I see many teams or community groups begin their meetings with a prayer, a national anthem, or repeating a pledge, but the ritual has no meaning other than it’s their tradition or practice. This is just what they do before a meeting. Always have the meaning of the ritual present when you carry out your ritual
The best part of Maximus’ ritual is that it took less than ten seconds, but what a powerful ten seconds. Kneeling or standing in prayer might work and it need not take a full minute and definitely not five or ten.
If you don’t do it you lose it, and because not doing it won’t imperil anyone it’s easy to forget. You’ll just notice that you continue to be stressed and less productive.
Journaling in the early morning can help you clear your mind of worries and declare an intention for the day (see below). This will, in turn, increase the odds that you’ll take a moment to hit your mind’s clear key as you move from meeting to meeting, or situation to situation during your day. You could also wear a rubber band around your wrist to remind you to do your ritual during the day.
What works for me
A Tai Chi movement is enough to bring me into the present, control my breathing. It meets all the objectives except it doesn’t automatically remind me to do it. As a clearing movement, I highly recommend it as a suitable ritual, and you don’t have to learn the complete form to benefit. Here’s a video of the complete tai chi short form, and note you don’t have to go so low (bend your knees) to do the form correctly. Also, just learning the first movement is enough for a clearing movement.
2) Declares an intention
This is the second thing Maximus’ pre-battle ritual accomplishes. In the same opening scene, right after Maximus smelled the earth in has hands, he stood and said, “Strength and honor.” The men around him repeated these three declarative words that set the standard by which they could judge their integrity in the coming battle. Saying this intention out loud increases the chance that they would perform with strength and honor and not scream and run away Monty Python style.
As you move through your day, going from situation to situation, any clearing ritual you perform should end with an intention for the situation you are about to advance.
It’s clear that “Strength and honor” (said in Crowe baritone) came from a deeply held conviction of the Maximus character, a conviction he would live up to in every battle.
Ideally, your intention should come from your personal credo, or mission statement if you have one, but it can also come from the particular situation you’re about to enter.
For the meeting where participants typically don’t feel heard or valued, you could declare this intention before you go into the meeting “Everyone present leaves the meeting feeling heard and valued.”
For another meeting where no one typically agrees with the way forward, you could declare this intention, “Every participant feels their input was included in the chosen solution,” or “Everyone leaves this meeting feeling we moved closer to the solution today.”
Clearing your mind of irrelevant thoughts and emotions brings your full capacity to the upcoming task, and declaring an intention gives purpose and direction to your thoughts and actions. These two actions increase the chances that things will unfold the way you wish. You’ll become not only a more effective and productive leader but also less stressed and more approachable as well.
Here’s the video of that opening scene from Gladiator—the ritual begins about 3:30 minutes in. Also a funny clip of the opposite of Maximus’ “Stength and Honor!” is below. By the way, I always smile at my imagined conversation between Maximus’ parents when he was born, “You’re going to name him what?” asked his mom. “Don’t worry,” answered his Dad, “He’s going to be a General.”