The 5 stages of building a tribe, and 8 elements of telling the story of the tribe

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Are you leading a tribe? Are you within a tribe? Or are you part of a crowd or many crowds? If you’re a business owner or a business leader, a tribe is a much more effective and efficient way to create measurable change in a marketplace, whereas organisations which are sharing the characteristics of being a crowd have been proven to be less so. There are five stages for formation of a tribe, and there is also the communications aspect of building a tribe, because tribes build businesses. Tribes create change, and that’s the goal of every organisation.

According to Seth Godin, a thought leader and author of some 22 books, including Tribes, "A crowd is a tribe without a leader. A crowd is a tribe without communication. Most organisations spend their time marketing to the crowd, but smart organisations assemble a tribe." A tribe, according to the dictionary, is a social division in traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties with a common culture and dialect typically having a recognized leader. In modern day terms, businesses can also become tribes. This is recognised when organisations and everybody across the organisation, all the touch points, are passionate about that brand and that service.

Mark Bowness, an Englishman who lives in Australia, runs a business called We Build Tribes. He has courses where he helps people build communities and tribes around a sense of common purpose. He has 30,000 people now following him as a tribe leader, and it’s a fantastic business model he’s built. He helps to create a sense of purpose and drive as well as the structure required for people to create a tribe. Businesses need to do the same thing, because tribes are groups of people committed to a common sense of purpose, and they recognise the roles within that organisation. 

The 5 stages of a tribe

Quite often, the center of power is no longer in control of the people delivering the value of the service. In 2008, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright wrote a book entitled Tribal Leadership. They interviewed 24,000 organisations and built a five-stage model for tribe leadership and building within organisations. Their view is that tribes are ultimately more powerful than companies and more powerful than individual executives, and that you can create tribes through a methodology. They believe tribes are comprised of only 15-150 people. Statistically, that would cover pretty much all companies around the world, because only 1% of all companies are above 250 people. The obvious implication of this is that every business could be a tribe, and a fundamental part of the role of the founder of the company is to be the leader of that tribe. 

Tribal Leadership (Photo from Goodreads)

According to these authors, stage one is where tribes are distinguished by some degree of hostility and despair where their members say things like, "Life sucks." That sounds a little bit extreme, but this is a stage where staff members complain about the nature of the management, the facilities, or the hours that they have to work. Stage two is where tribes are characterized by apathy and a sense of futility, where the people in the organisation basically don’t try, they don’t care, they don’t innovate, and they don’t hold one another accountable for anything. Actually, it’s not just a detached lifestyle. They say, "My life sucks." In other words, they feel committed enough to the organisation, but in a negative way. 

The third stage is where tribal members or members of staff are selfish, and they’re really in it for themselves. They’re finding ways to support their own cause internally and quite possibly make themselves look better by making others look worse. Their attitude is, "I’m great, but you’re not." Stage four is where tribe members have a sense of shared values, and they’re willing to share knowledge and collaborate with each other. They are still competing slightly with each other, but their competitive focus shifts to other tribes and other companies. They move from internal competition to external competition, which, of course, is a good situation in some respects. They’re saying, "We’re a great company, but they’re not. Buy from us because we’re good, but I wouldn’t go there because they’re bad."

The last stage is where tribes attain what the authors call a rare level of innocent wonderment, where they say that the individuals within the organisation apply themselves to the creation of things that no one has dreamt of yet, and are often incredibly successful. These tribes and the people within them say, "Life is great," and these people are solving what they believe to be a higher purpose, a problem bound into some deep and primal instincts. Although, it’s a lot easier for individuals and for companies to be competitive with other companies and other individuals than it is for them to take on a larger, higher purpose challenge, such as changing the world and not merely their company or their industry. 

The point of the authors is that these stages can be managed, which is essentially a good thing. Pixar, Apple, and Tesla are companies that have a messianic desire, which runs through the entire organisation. It’s not just these big companies, however. It’s also smaller, owner-operated restaurants, for example. There are some great training companies that I’ve dealt with where the founders have imbued a sense of mission and purpose throughout the team, and that person has created a tribe around what they believe. In the same way Mark Bowness is creating with his, business can create tribes.

Looking at people like Tony Robbins, people are creating tribal leaders and creating what Simon Sinek talks about in terms of why the organisation exists. People need to look upstream from that and look at who the leader is, because that creates the authenticity to the "why." As for Donald Trump who says his purpose is to drain the swamp and to make a blue collar revolution in America, he’s a billionaire, so the authenticity there is quite a stretch. Here is a billionaire following what he is proposing as populist measures, so there’s a disparity there between the life role and purpose of the of the tribal leader and the members of the tribe. 

Storification

Storification is the first part of the SPEAK|pr methodology, because who you are is very important. When forming companies, it’s important to find people with a shared history or a shared mission. This seems to be some of the characteristics of a great company built on a tribe of commonly driven people. It’s common for company leaders to be more interested in who their employees are than what they know, because who they are is something that can’t be changed, while what they know can. Thus, keep in mind that the way everybody in the organisation behaves becomes the reality for the consumers, the partners, and also for the staff. Public relations is greater than press releases. It’s greater than the contact with the media. It’s all the touchpoints that created within the company.

Marketing is the act of telling stories that sell and stories that spread, and those stories should have a genuine narrative. To build the tribe through the five different stages from apathy through to evangelism, the first thing to take into consideration is the platform to be used. The SPEAK|pr Technology Applications Directory has over 100 platforms that can be used for communication. One of the core ones is face-to-face, whether that’s now in a digital platform or if it’s in a lockdown situation. Nevertheless, personal contact is going to be essential, in one way or another, to create a tribe. Another thing is about having messaging that is consistent. Staying in line with the purpose and mission as well as posting content that is relevant and thought through will help drive the message home. Being candid is another part of sharing values and creating a tribe. Sharing both the good and the bad help, because that prepares people for reality.

Categorizing content with the use of hashtags is also key. Quality is important, and so are getting great images, great video, and great audio, because then they’re not a distraction for the audience. Don’t forget to credit the people who have shared the information being used. Give credit where it’s due. This then leads on to the next point about loyalty being earned and not given. People lead tribes, and they’re given authority because of what they say and how they behave. This is different to people who are appointed with authority. Often, the leaders of organisations are not necessarily the people with the title of leadership. It could simply be someone who gets things done and whom other people look to for answers even though they may not have the job title or the responsibility given to them by the organisation.

Senator Bill Bradley from America defined a movement as having three elements. The first is a narrative that tells a story about who the person is and the future they’re trying to build. The second is a connection between and among the leader and the tribe. The third is something to do. The fewer the elements, the better. In the methodology of storification, around the "Vision, But, Therefore," the tribal leader has the vision, but they also help to articulate the "but" or why there are challenges. They also envision and articulate the solution. Ultimately, tribal leaders are who people want to trust and follow, and it’s possible to be a member of more than one tribe, like in the family and at work, and so there will be different roles to play. In communication terms, it’s important to know which ones are being played how and when, and in which ways it can be done, so that the greater good of the organisation is transferred across to everybody that needs to know about it. 

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo by Entrepreneur

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