From magic mushrooms to ayahuasca—psychedelics are the new leadership retreat

Everything went black, and Felix Van de Sand began falling. He was trapped in a waking nightmare and gripped by fear. But even in this distorted world, he kept his wits about him. The retreat staff had told Van de Sand what to do if something like this happened.

“Just to surrender to it, they said. So I did.”

Van de Sand, now 44, was 38 and newly divorced when he felt the call to ayahuasca—a psychoactive brew of two plants native to the Amazon, the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub. The vine contains MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), the active ingredient in first-generation antidepressants. The leaves contain the psychedelic chemical DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine).

Answering the plant medicine’s call, Van de Sand, CEO of Munich-based digital agency COBE, was in a jungle in Costa Rica having a vision. In it, a figure raised a curtain on the darkness. Behind it was bright color and light. The figure said, “Look! You can dance with your fears.”

The figure empowered him to choose which fears he’d allow into his life. The hallucinations that unfolded from there, that night and during subsequent drug trips throughout the week, revealed patterns that had been holding Van de Sand back not only in his personal but also his professional life.

That gave Van de Sand an idea. He’d return to the ayahuasca retreat, only next time, he’d bring his colleagues.

“I felt it would make us better leaders by helping us become the best versions of ourselves,” he says. “Authentic, open leaders that show vulnerability and openly talk about what we’re good at, what we’re not good at, and where we need help.”

Psychedelics, such as ayahuasca, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and MDMA (ecstasy), are believed to dramatically accelerate the process of personal transformation that could take years to achieve in standard talk therapy. That’s why they are enjoying increasing attention in the mental health space. And it’s why a growing number of business leaders, like Van de Sand, are offering their colleagues and staff the chance to participate in psychedelic retreats on the company dime.

“Psychedelics supercharge you into the stratosphere of understanding, adaptability, and neuroplasticity that will allow you to make the types of changes—increases in openness, better communication style, less rigidity, and more willingness to change and adapt—that would benefit any leadership style,” says Justin Townsend, CEO of MycoMeditations, a Jamaica-based psilocybin retreat that has a program tailored for business leaders in the works.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy for business leaders

A Google search for “psychedelic-assisted leadership training” returns over a million results. But centuries before CEOs began flocking to ayahuasca retreats in Oregon, Costa Rica, and Peru, shamans served up the bitter, earthy brew in traditional religious ceremonies throughout the Amazon basin. Laypersons can still find and attend shamanic ceremonies that involve the psychedelic of their choice. But many seek contemporary therapeutic programs with built-in talk therapy sessions and more focus on wellness than religion.

These modern retreats last several nights to a week. The psychedelic drug is typically doled out every other night. On the intervening days, in a sober state, participants unpack their psychedelic trip with someone trained to guide them through that process in group or private “integration” sessions.

It’s not uncommon for these psychedelic trips to unlock repressed trauma or pain that victims are now able to face and process. It’s through integration that participants try to find meaning in the visions or “teachings” that the psychedelic brought them.

Retreats designed for business leaders may follow this same format, but they bring together generally successful, high-performing, analytical people who face similar day-to-day challenges. Group talks tend to reflect that.

“Our integration is set up to think about how leaders can continue to create in this world without doing it from this type A push, push, push mentality that caused a lot of their struggle and pain and got them here in the first place,” says Brandon Evans, CEO of 1heart, a Costa Rica-based ayahuasca retreat for entrepreneurs and leaders. The six-year-old organization has hosted more than 500 business leaders at 21 retreats.

Team-building at warp speed

When entrepreneur Keith Ferrazzi attended his first ayahuasca retreat, he quickly formed deep connections with his fellow retreatants.

“Here I am, a coach, going through this experience of incredible socialization, bonding and empathy creation with a group of strangers.” With the teams he coaches through his consultancy Ferrazzi Greenlight, “it will typically take me six to nine months to build that kind of trust.”

The experience made such an impression that, like Van de Sand, Ferrazzi made plans to bring his business partners back to the jungle with him.

Changing toxic behavior

Team-building is not the only thing business leaders believe they stand to gain from psychedelics.

A growing body of research suggests that psychedelics promote changes in unyielding behaviors. They can help people break out of dysfunctional patterns in, as Van de Sand noticed, their personal or professional relationships.

Studies in the Journal of Psychopharmacology have reported lasting, measurable increases in the personality trait of openness—as compared to close-mindedness or rigidity—after a psychedelic experience.

“There’s more capacity for creative thinking,” Townsend says. “You’re more at ease with uncertainty and ambiguity, and you have some cognitive behavioral agility”—traits that, he adds, are invaluable for a good leader.

MRI studies reveal that psychedelics improve brain circuitry, which could explain why the drugs might facilitate changes in seemingly fixed behaviors.

Tripping with the C-suite

Ferrazzi, former CMO of Deloitte and Starwood Hotels, had never used any drugs before ayahuasca. But when he got back to work, he proposed the retreat to two business partners—men that ran companies in which he was the majority shareholder—and his chief of staff. They were all in.

“What it opened up,” Ferrazzi says, was a much deeper level of partnership, commitment, and understanding of what really mattered to each other.”

But tripping on psychedelics and unleashing repressed trauma with colleagues and staff can be awkward too.

“It’s very productive when your personal material does surface, but doing it alongside your senior colleagues or your subordinates can lead to a confidentiality issue,” Townsend says.

When Van de Sand returned to the ayahuasca retreat with his company’s cofounder and two managing directors, he expected a week of bonding and sharing with them.

“It bonded us because we had this intense experience together,” he says. “But it’s so personal what happens there and, at the end of the day, these are still your coworkers and you don’t want to go into the really dirty details with them. In the sharing circles, we were definitely hesitant.”

Workplace peer pressure

That’s not the only issue that might arise when one tries to mix business with psychedelics. 

“We often see the ‘agreeableness’ trait causing problems in the workplace,” Townsend says.

When conflict-avoidant types are invited to a psychedelic-assisted leadership retreat with their colleagues, whether they want to or not, “I suspect there’ll be those that go along anyway because it’s easier than saying no. If you’re one of five senior leaders in the C-suite and you’re the only one saying no, that’s not so good.”

One of Van de Sand’s colleagues, he says, only went along with it because she wanted the free trip to Costa Rica. She was scared to drink ayahuasca.

These are the issues Townsend is working through as he figures out how to format a psilocybin-assisted leadership retreat for teams. He’s considering whether he’ll ensure colleagues from the same company are put into separate breakout groups during a single retreat or whether he’ll ask that companies send members of a team separately.

That’s the way Van de Sand would do it if he did it again. He doesn’t plan to take another group of colleagues with him into the jungle to drink ayahuasca together. But he will continue to speak openly with colleagues and staff about how much he benefited from it. So far, this has prompted others at his company to go to retreats on their own. On their return to the office, he can see the difference. The whole team benefits.

Ferrazzi agrees: “One person doing this work could be massive for the team.”

It’s important, Ferrazzi adds, that leaders understand that. He doesn’t advocate for his clients to drag their entire team to the Amazon to trip on psychedelics. All they can do, he says, is figure out a way to support employees who are interested within the boundaries of the law and the benefits program.

“I don’t think we’re in a position where a team leader can say, ‘Hey, we’re all going to Costa Rica to get some of this medicine.’ I don’t think we’re there. But I do think that someday the medicine will be legal everywhere, the benefits will be clear to everybody, and the people who won’t avail themselves of the medicine are going to be the outsiders.”

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