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What does it mean to be tribal?

Tribal leadership regularly comes up in the work we do, and people always ask for our take on it. A client recently shared a piece of thinking, a piece of history, with me that I found fascinating for a range of reasons linked to this subject. He was in the midst of a redesign of his top team and was struggling to articulate what he wanted to create beyond the structural changes that were required.

By chance, he had stumbled on an article that talked about the qualities that Native American leaders aim to possess. He shared the list with me (his abridged version) and I’ve placed it below.

In the American Indian sense, tribal leadership is very different to business leadership. Tribal ‘elders’ are people who have the information, insight and voice to help steer the tribe in the right direction. They are chosen for what they know and can do, rather than by right or conquest.

We all nod sagely at that statement. Of course, we absolutely want those sorts of people in our teams. But the reality is far harder, and the fact is that most of the teams we work with are still created through hierarchy rather than true need.

As our client said to his colleagues: “These team changes are more than a reshuffle. This is about us thinking as a tribe – choosing the right people with the ‘wisdom’ that will ensure we make sound decisions, and listening to the opposing ideas to open up opportunities. Membership of the group shouldn’t be about status or seniority, it should be about having something to add.”

I love that last part… ‘something to add’. It’s an understated mic-drop challenge to those forming the group, one that should rest with gravity on their thoughts.

Here’s the list – share it, ask your team what they take from it… try and live it.

The five qualities of North American tribal leaders:

1) They know what their source of power is and they do not abuse that power. Sharing power is one of their best attributes and they are very quick to raise others up who demonstrate their ability to take on leadership roles. They empower everyone around them.

2) They understand there is a time and place for everything. The concept of Indian time for them is it starts when it starts and it finishes when it is finished.

3) Native emotional intelligence is highly developed in these leaders. They are very self aware and they have a very high level of compassion for others. They have a gift for knowing when the people need something and if they are in a position to help them they do so.

4) Servant leadership is part of their DNA. These leaders are always putting others first. Traditionally these leaders would never ask others to do anything that they were not willing to do themselves.

5) Native leaders are visionaries. They see the big picture and they help create the vision for the entire community.

Chris Preston is a culture expert and one of the founding partners of The Culture Builders

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