Associations and Tribal Leaders


Like many words, the word “tribe” has taken on new meaning in an era where people from around the globe can easily and rapidly cluster around ideas, interests, goals, or even hobbies.  Social media has given rise to groups that would otherwise not have been able to form and collaborate for common purpose and reward.  Social media at its core is a facilitator of tribal formation and behavior.

Professional societies and associations have long been examples of groups which by their very nature represent a clustering of individuals who believe that by joining others who share values and interests they can promote and protect their individual goals and interests.  Associations are modern day tribes – collections of individuals bound by common beliefs, values, norms, ritual and interests.  The 20th century marked the advent of the growth of these modern types of tribes.

So, what are we now witnessing as the great tribal phenomenon of the 20th century meets the great tribal facilitator of the 21st century – social media?

Three types of response, it seems.  There are examples of associations who interpret social media as a necessary evil to be contended with.  This type of response means the association puts forth the effort to have a social media presence, but sees the activity as a new budget line item that would not exist if it were not necessary to “keep up” with new communication channels.  Let’s call these associations “Reluctant Warriors.”

The second type of response from associations seems to be more embracing of the new communication channels.  Examples of associations with this type of response are excited by the prospect of having a new tool for collaboration across their member base, and some have even co-opted the social media concept to fashion mini networks of their own, privately branded by the association, in addition to mastering promotion and communication via larger social media outlets – facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and others.  Let’s call these associations “Swimmers.”

The third type of response appears to be most appropriate given the natural kinship (pun intended) between the great professional tribal movement of the 20th century and the great tribal facilitator of the 21st century.  These associations have identified social media as a means to assert tribal leadership – that is, to develop and reinforce the role of the association as a body that consistently “gets” the values and world view of the individuals who yearn to come together for the purpose of promoting and protecting their individual interests.  Using this mindset and framework, the association views social media as a natural progression and extension of its own place in the world – that of an entity whose reason for being is to facilitate the ability for individuals to join to leverage the power of the collective for individual gain.  Let’s call these associations, “Tribal Leaders.”

I’ve purposely not attempted to provide examples of associations which might exemplify each of these categories – Reluctant Warriors, Swimmers, and Tribal Leaders — because these categories represent examples of mindset and paradigm more so than they do action and behavior, although distinctly different modes of behavior likely result from each.  It is not for me or others to intuit from behavior how particular association leaders may be thinking, although it is likely possible to come close to being accurate in such an exercise.  Rather, I think it’s important to leave that to association leaders themselves to contemplate.  Explore your own assumptions and beliefs about the role of your association as well as the role you and your colleagues in position of association leadership play, and see which of these prototypical responses to social media most closely reflects your thinking and theirs.

It’s my hope, for your sake and the sake of your members, that you see yourself as a Tribal Leader.  But that, of course, is up to you.

(A version of this post was also posted in the blog, Demand Perspective)