Tribal Leadership, Storytelling, and Fighting for Change
“Who exactly are you upsetting? Because if you’re not upsetting anyone, you’re not changing the status quo.” – Seth Godin
I like this quote from Godin a lot, because as much as I’m a fan of balance and harmony, I also understand that neither of those things usually bring about change; they’re sometimes the result of change, but rarely the catalyst, outside of being an inspiration for the people seeking them. For today’s business leaders, pushing a hard-edged agenda, wielding positional power, or babysitting creatives no longer keeps them in the driver’s seat or earns them respect-by-default. Instead, it’s an ability to be vulnerable and accountable while bridging the gap between innovation and execution.
More than anything, dear leaders, we want your passion. Your curiosity. We want to do more than just believe you; we want to believe in you.
The Balance of Power: Shift, Shift, BOOM
Godin made the above statement in a TED talk he gave, where he discussed the resurgence of tribal mentality and behavior in our modern world. The idea is basically that today’s super-interconnected culture has given us so much control over the movements, content, products, and people we interact with that we’re constantly building contemporary tribes — tribes of people who are avid cyclists, who love death metal, who only eat raw foods. And because these tribes are born out of passion, their leaders are not dictators or even innovators, per se; they’re simply people who know how to make connections, shape the culture of their tribe, and risk the untraveled path.
In terms of business leaders, nothing could be more important. In a working environment, we’re all more or less dropped into tribes, which we’re only familiar with on a very basic level. You know what department or role you’ll be in, but there’s always a big spoonful of uncertainty — unlike joining a book club or heading to a music festival, there’s no immediate assurance that the people you’ll be connecting with actually care about what they’re doing, or are merely very good at it. That’s why it’s so key that leaders focus on cultural connections; it should be obvious that whoever’s at the helm shares the same goals as the people they lead, harnessing their fervor and not just their skills. It’s a power exchange, and a shift towards collaboration instead of dictatorship.
Godin points out that some of the great cultural luminaries of the world — musicians and activists who sparked true and lasting change in the world — never invented the groups that they corralled. They simply chose to rise up and guide them.
The Story of Change
True leaders are often better at one thing than they are at anything else: telling a story. It’s part of their gift that they can absorb myriad ideas and translate them into actions that inspire and draw others towards whatever changes they’re trying to effect. It doesn’t even have to be their own story (in fact, it usually isn’t).
Inciting a group or team of people to support systematic shifts, adopt a new way of thinking, buy into a product, support a cause — it all comes down to the why. A lot of the time, we make the mistake of obsessively focusing on the ‘how’ — how will we get money to do this? How many stakeholders are invested? How am I supposed to have time for this? How can I make this deadline? Those questions are important, but it’s the ‘why’ of any story that actually motivates change, because it’s the question we use to determine value. Great leaders always start any movement by addressing this basic human need to understand the purpose behind the change.
Scaling back a bit for workplace leaders, the same rule applies: tell your team the story of why you’re disrupting their expectations. Your job is to speak to them in their own language. Understand how the people on your team connect with each other and with the organization, and you won’t need to bludgeon them with bureaucracy or demand that they follow you blindly just because. After all, being a leader is about constructing a culture — not a cult.
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