So What Are Tribes and How Are We Like Them?

Len Sweet in a recent tweet asked “what if church ad councils or “sessions” or “deacon boards” were reinvented as “Tribal Councils” (, October 1, 2009)?  The question prompted me to investigate what others are saying about tribes.

I turned first to Seth Godin who recently wrote TRIBES: We Need You to Lead Us.  He gave an preview to his book at TED Talks on “The Tribes We Lead” (May 2009).  Seth suggests that in our time there is a new way of making change.  The change we seek is lived out by changing life through the tribes we are part of, and more importantly, the tribes we create.  The process unfolds as we tell the story of what is wrong with the status quo, gather others who share our discontent, and then lead this “tribe” to a better future.

So three questions I’d offer you. The first one is, who exactly are you upsetting? Because if you’re not upsetting anyone, you’re not changing the status quo. The second question is, who are you connecting? Because for a lot of people, that’s what they’re in it for. The connections that are being made, one to the other. And the third one is, who are you leading? Because focusing on that part of it, not the mechanics of what you’re building, but the who, and the leading part is where change comes.

So how do leaders respond to these challenges?

So here is what leaders have in common. The first thing is, they challenge the status quo. They challenge what’s currently there. The second thing is, they build a culture. A secret language, a seven second handshake. A way of knowing that you’re in or out. They have curiosity. Curiosity about people in the tribe. Curiosity about outsiders. They’re asking questions. They connect people to one another. Do you know what people want more than anything? They want to be missed. They want to be missed the day they don’t show up. They want to be missed when they’re gone. And tribe leaders can do that. It’s fascinating because all tribe leaders have charisma. But you don’t need charisma to become a leader. Being a leader gives you charisma. If you look and study the leaders who have succeeded, that’s where charisma comes from, from the leading. Finally, they commit. They commit to the cause. They commit to the tribe. They commit to the people who are there.

Enjoy the full video.  Seth make a great presentation.

David Logan, a USC faculty member and consultant, added clarity to me investigation in a TED talks on Tribal Leadership.  The following are the different stages of tribe development and his insights on how to lead the tribe forward:

Stage 1:  LIFE SUCKS!  This tribe is formed from folks who have systematically rejected traditional tribes and gathered together with other likeminded people in gangs.  The prison yard is literally full of tribes of this type.  Logan’s further insight is that people behave the way they see the world, e.g. if they assume that life sucks, they will behave as if life sucks (and it should for you as well).

Stage 2:  MY LIFE SUCKS!  This tribe is characterized by the line to renew your driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles.  The culture makes people dumb and we react with anger at our participation in the ritual of standing in line.  But many organizations have people within them that react with despair about their situation and no work or innovation can emerge from this kind of tribe.

Stage 3:  I’M GREAT (and your not)!  This is the stage that many of us will move to and unfortunately stay at.  In this kind of tribe every member is constantly trying to one up each other.  These tribes are formed from gatherings of smart and successful people.

Stage 4:  WE’RE GREAT!  At this point tribes of motivated people gather around a larger mission and vision to become innovative as they celebrate their corporate identity.  (e.g. Zappos values fun, creativity, and being a little bit weird).

Stage 5:  LIFE IS GREAT!  The tribe that demonstrates this is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others rallied others to find common ground so that South Africa was able to avoid the fate of other nations like Rwanda.

There are three possibly counter-intuitive things that leaders of tribes know:

1.  Leaders are fluent in all five stages of tribal development.  The Declaration of Independence highlights the stage five goals of  “inalienable rights,” but most of the document makes references to stage two complaints about life under the rule of a tyrant.  Martin Luther King’s most famous statement “I have a dream” was a stage three comment from a leader of a stage five movement.  We have to speak to where our people are even as we nudge them forward.  (Organizational tribes break down along these lines: Stage 1 – 2%, Stage 2 – 25%, Stage 3 – 48%, Stage 4 – 22%, Stage 5 – 2%.  Stage 5 tribes will change the world!)

Leaders are not content to leave people where they found them!  So the following learnings are paired:

2.  Tribes can only hear one stage above and below where they are.

3.  Leaders nudge people and their tribe to the next stage.

Logan close his talk with a challenge to form triadic relationships.  Our typical response to networking is to become a hub of connection.  Logan suggests we introduce ourselves to another person and then help them make another connection in order to build a innovative movement.  World-changing tribes connect not just to a leader but to each other so the momentum continues at all levels of an organization.

We all form tribes, but what kind of an impact are the tribes you are part of making?  Will your tribe change the world?