The Tribal Thing


In this blog and in our work we talk about tribes, and we talk about tribal leaders. In so doing we are drawing on a couple decades of study and practice in the area of ethnography — the study and explanation of group culture.  When we speak of tribes, we are speaking specifically about a subculture that is built upon individuals with certain shared qualities — assumptions, beliefs, values, norms, rituals, and artifacts — the building blocks of culture.

Our definition of a tribe is a group of individuals who believe that affiliation with a specific group will further their chances of promoting and preserving their individual values.  Strength in numbers. Growth through the collective.  Sense of affirmation through belonging and mutual reinforcement. Values themselves we define roughly as those principles individuals defend at all times because their very promotion and preservation represent a critical path to security and/or success (self-actualization) for themselves, and their offspring. Importantly, values can be held both consciously and unconsciously.

A need for self-preservation and actualization drives values.  A need to promote and preserve values drives tribal affiliation.

The key, as we see it, for a tribal leader, is to surface, identify, interpret, understand, and internalize these values — the assumptions and beliefs upon which they are built, and the norms, rituals, and artifacts that support them. A “brand” is something most leaders are familiar with. We consider a brand — whether a personal brand or an organization’s  — to be a central artifact, or symbol, which embodies the values of the group, or tribe.  

If a leader is using a brand to connect with a tribe, and the symbolic meaning or power of the brand is not aligned with the tribe’s values, there will be a constant disconnect between the leader and the tribe he or she is trying to lead. Conversely, if the brand the leader uses or relies upon is indeed aligned with the values of the tribe he or she is trying to lead, the tribe will respond.  In fact, it will try hard to be led.  The leader and tribe will be in sync and grow in symbiotic fashion.

So, for us, the tribal thing is basic to leadership, and basic to branding that actually works.  We help people who seek to lead gain the necessary understanding and mindset to become tribal leaders.  We also help them at all times understand how much “power” their brand has — how aligned with and integrated into the daily lives and trajectory of the group the leader is trying to motivate and inspire.

The concept is as old as dirt.  We are dusting it off for the digital, no, social, age.