Tribal Wisdom: Lessons for Leaders

The role of the leader is to bring the tribe from darkness by reminding the people about who they once were and who they can be. So begins the film Whale Rider, the modern day myth of a Maori girl, Pai, and her emotional journey to become the leader of her impoverished tribe. The story is a powerful metaphor of what ails much of corporate leadership, which is in desperate need of renewal.

Tribal leaders know that once the tribe loses its collective sense of meaning, its survival is at risk. They also know how to help their communities find and renew an individual and collective sense of identity.

Rites of passage marking critical life transitions are a hallmark of tribal societies. Whether moving from childhood to adulthood, getting married or integrating warriors back into their communities, rites of passage were designed to help people navigate those difficult times when one identity faded and a new one took its place.

Organizations often promote people and expect them to figure it out for themselves, not recognizing the significant thinking and emotional shifts needed to become effective leaders. With the decimation of middle management, there are no longer the role models—the “elders”—to emulate, especially for first-time leaders. The result is confusion, alienation, cynicism and resentment. In most organizations, with the increasing focus on task accomplishment and meeting short-term profit goals, leaders don’t value the tasks of leadership—setting a vision, engaging others, coaching and establishing priorities for others. If they’re honest with themselves, they’ll admit they usually get more satisfaction out of doing the job themselves and getting the recognition, than they do from seeing other people be successful. Simply stated, they’ve missed the rite of passage from worker to manager, from manager to leader.

In the same way that rites of passages help individuals form new, more mature identities, tribal myths help the group find its identity. They speak to questions that lay at the core of the tribe: where they came from and what their destiny is. The mythical stories that tribal leaders tell unite the individual with the community and give vital powers to the tribe—hope, reassurance and inspiration. They are powerful tools to create aligned behavior in a group.

As anthropologist Richard Leaky said, “Myths were one of the most important inventions of homo sapiens, as they became the means by which prescriptions for survival could be passed on from generation to generation.” Myths help tribe members face their individual and collective concerns. By providing role models in the guise of the mythic hero, they give guidance on how to make it through difficult times. They also let people know what challenges—physical and psychological—they can expect along the way. Through their power, tribal leaders acknowledge in a deep and compelling way the group’s shared sense of struggle to overcome difficult obstacles and achieve something important—a strong message that is just as relevant in corporate boardrooms as it was to any tribe throughout history seeking to survive.

Through myths, tribal leaders summon followers to become part of the larger life drama. Winston Churchill’s appeal to the Greater Glory of Britain, for example, struck to the core of each citizen’s identity at a time when it was at risk of being erased from history. We all live the heroic life. Whether it was the farmer in ancient Egypt struggling against the flooding Nile River, or the executive closing a complex business deal, the world’s great myths carry the same universal theme of the hero’s journey. From innocence to maturity, from selfishness to compassion, from birth to death, heroic myths explain to people the grand cycles of their lives.

The most powerful myths are those that speak to the hero in each of us. We carry the hero within us that seeks to take on difficult challenges, driven by an inner passion that transcends our current challenges and self-doubts, a hero who seeks to achieve the impossible and who is willing to suffer the hardships, setbacks and loneliness of the journey in order to realize that deep, inner calling. Leaders appeal to our sense of identity calling. They create meaning by appealing to our sense of identity and our individual journey.

Dan Goleman, author of Primal Leadership, relates how an executive with the BBC used these principles in addressing a group of journalists that management had decided to lay off. He spoke about the importance of journalism to the vibrancy of a society and of the calling that had drawn them all to the field in the first place. He reminded them that no one goes into journalism to get rich. He recalled a time in his own career when he had been let go and how he had struggled to find a new position, but how he had stayed dedicated to the profession. Finally, he wished them well in getting on with their careers. When this resonant leader finished speaking, the staff cheered.

Like a tribal chief, this leader created the grand stage that gave deeper meaning to a difficult event. As James Hollis, a noted Jungian analyst said, “Leaders are not meant to divert us from our own journey, but rather to remind us of it.”

Throughout time, the moral obligations of leaders have centered around preserving the community’s identity so it would never lose its sense of meaning and direction. Tribal leaders clearly understand that they have a moral obligation to the community they served. At its core, that is what leadership in any age is about. Tribal leaders practice this moral imperative by providing a sense of historical perspective, so that each member of the tribe can interpret his or her actions in the moment against a bigger world that they have not experienced.

In doing so these leaders give people a broader set of options from which to choose. Tribal leaders tell stories of the “ancient ones”—those mysterious first people from whom stems the tribe’s source of creativity, power and uniqueness. In doing so, tribal leaders connect the tribe to their emotional source so that each member’s personal journey can be subsumed by the tribe’s collective journey. That is how tribal leaders compel others to act—by helping other see their role in the grander flow of the tribe’s destiny.

At its core, that is what leadership in any age is about—engaging others by sharing wisdom, modeling the right values, instilling courage in difficult times and increasing the competence of the tribe.

Look at Walt Disney’s original vision statement for Disneyland and you will see the embodiment of that same universal power that set something wonderful in motion:

“To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past...and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America...with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”

As I think about our political leaders, some have much to learn from tribal wisdom. For if they did, public option healthcare would not be an issue, it would be a given.


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Bonnie Morét is an award-winning photographer recognized by The Georgia Council of the Arts as "an exceptional representation of contemporary Georgia art work." Her photography is featured on Georgia Public Broadcast's Georgia Traveler. Her exhibitions include Fifth Annual Exposure Awards at Musee du Louvre in Paris, France, Art Takes Miami at Scope Art during Art Basel Miami, Metro Montage XIII at the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art, World of Water at the Georgia Aquarium, Open Walls at Black Box Gallery in Portland, Oregon, Wholly Georgia: A Look at the Effects of Southern Religious Culture, sponsored by the Art History League and Georgia State University, at Mint Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, 6x6 at the Rochester Contemporary Arts Center in Rochester, New York, @Phonography: Dialogue in the Wireless Age, at 3 Ring Circus in New Orleans, Louisiana, and About Lands and Lives of the Civil War at the 6th Cavalry Museum in Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia. Her photography appears in Modern Luxury/The Atlantan, Jezebel Magazine, and hangs in the executive offices at the Georgia State Capitol as part of the Art of Georgia exhibit. Corporate clients include Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta History Center, Chanel Cosmetics, Christian Dior Cosmetics, Sharp Mountain Vineyards, PM Realty Group, Granite Properties, Road Atlanta, Patrón Tequila, StubHub, CBM Records and The Washington Auto Show.