The Modern Tribe: Leadership

Who leads the tribe? It is a sticky, icky, question bound to raise the countless objections, countless special case exceptions, and generate the kind of debating that boils down to perception based differences. Yet, despite being a potential quagmire, the concept of leadership is critical for a tribe to thrive.

In defining what a modern tribe is, I felt it best to start with the leadership element. Find the center and then one can work out from there determining the scope of the tribe. Things will always be murky on the fringes, but ideally the center will provide clarity.

Our modern society is fragmented. People tend to live very insular lives, creating social circles out of coworkers and friends of convenience, all the while attempting to maintain connections with those few people in their lives that they have deeper bonds with but due to distance or scheduling cannot easily socialize with. These relationships weaken over time if not exercised. The leaders of a tribe tend to be the people reaching out and maintaining those connections.

Identifying the leaders isn’t simple, though. When discussing this type of leadership, we aren’t talking about the traditional top down command system. Tribal leaders aren’t dictating actions to the tribe. They are enablers and connectors. They are bringing people together. Sometimes we find ourselves realizing we haven’t seen a friend or acquaintance on awhile and then realize we only see that person because another person brings us together. Such realizations are critical clues as to where the center of the tribe is.

Tribal leadership, from my basic observation, requires three key elements. The first and most obvious role is the social coordinator. This can be a role filled by a single person or by a few. The social coordinator makes events happen and gives the tribe a reason to gather. This is the person throwing the birthday parties, organizing baby showers, and holding spontaneous get-togethers. In general this role is fairly neutral in the tribe. This role is removed from the personal drama of the others, may provide a soft shoulder once in awhile, but remains inoffensive to most of the tribe.

Consider professional party planners as an example of this kind of leadership. Their touch is on anything but they remain in the background. They build the environment for others to play in. They provide the context for the gathering and along with the Mother role maintains the tribe’s rituals.

Every tribe has rituals, though most are not clear cut and openly stated. I hate to turn to television for examples, but one of the best depictions of modern tribe rituals appears on the show How I Met Your Mother. The friends in this show ritualizes everything in very obvious ways from Slapbets to Interventions. More normal, real life tribes’ rituals are less over-the-top but no less formalized. The easiest rituals to spot tend to be the event based rituals. What is done at the social gatherings? Any special activities which seem to occur at each gathering, such as a card game, video game, recipe sharing, movie, food, conversation, or type of humor that can be counted on? Is there a special way birthdays are celebrated or acknowledged? Is there a particular beverage that gets shared that is unique to special events? All of these and so many more things are part of the tribe’s rituals. These rituals are rarely formalized, but just accepted and one of the ways a tribe can be identified is through the common acceptance of these rituals.

The other key element of tribal leadership is the ‘Mother’. I struggle with that term because of the obvious gender bias but Mother is the best possible term for this role. Mother is the combination caregiver and guiltmaker. The Mother is the person who offers universal acceptance, unconditional love and support, and is the person the tribe members least want to disappoint for a variety of reasons. The Mother role is the person for whom people will travel distances and rearrange schedules to see. The Mother doesn’t lay guilt trips on people, but not meeting the Mother’s expectations creates guilt. The best possible example of a Mother role in a tribe I can offer is from another television show, Community. The character Shirley, who is a mom in the show, is the person no one wants to disappoint. In the first Christmas episode, she is the one setting the expectations of behavior and in the end; even though another character wants to defy her, he finds he doesn’t want to disappoint her.

The final element of tribal leadership is the Logistics Manager. Wow, that sounds dull no matter what kind of spin I try to put on it. Everyone has ideas, everyone wants to get stuff done, but there tends to be one person who knows how to get those ideas and stuff accomplished. This is the role that coordinates travel, finds places for events, and does the legwork to make things happen. This role is often overlooked since so much of what this role does is laying the groundwork. When a group decides to go to the movies together, this role figures out how many cars are needed, who is driving, the times of the movies, alternatives to the movie in case it is sold out, directions to the theater, and bars and restaurants near the theater for after the movie. At potluck events this is the role that wants to know who is bringing desserts, entrees, chips, and soda.

Sometimes these different roles are played by one person. Most of the time the roles shift and flow over the tribe as the need arises. When one of these roles isn’t filled though, the tribe suffers. This is most obvious if you’ve ever been in a conversation where you find yourselves in conversations like any of the following.

Lack of Social Coordinator:

“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

Lack of Mother:

“Hey we are having people over for pizza next weekend, want to come?”
“Sounds fun, but you know, I think I’m staying in.”

Lack of Logistics Manager:

“Hey, let’s go apple picking?”
“Sounds great, where at?”
“I’m not sure, we’ll find a place?”
“How long will it take?”
“I don’t know.”

A strong tribe needs all three roles filled. A person to create reasons for the tribe to gather, a person that helps the members of the tribe overcome the inertia of doing nothing, and a person who figures out how to make all of it happen. Most of the time these roles are filled naturally. There are people who just have the talent and the inclination to fulfill these roles. Other times the roles get pushed onto someone, especially the Logistics Manager. There will be an obvious need and someone will step up and figure it out.

Personality plays a critical role in all of these roles of modern tribal leadership. These roles are often filled by ‘big personalities’ but are the most accepting and open people of the tribe. The social coordinator constantly tries to be inclusive. The Mother provides care and comfort to all. And the Logistics Manager sees everything in terms of resources.

4 thoughts on “The Modern Tribe: Leadership

  1. Are you talking about ethic groups that migrate, and reestablish communities here in the US? They seem to stay very tight-knit for a generation or two (maybe three), but then their descendants seem to move on and out of the area. I think there is a sense of duty to community that is lost when people become very mobile and migratory. We change jobs and move across the country, leaving family & friends behind. It’s hard to find new communities without common ground. Churches and religious centers often fill this need, where church members pay more attention to eachother than the people who live next door but don’t belong to their church. The Mormons are a classic example of this. I’ve had my own experiences with them, and the minute they found out I wasn’t going to join up, all contact with them ceased, even though my neighbor just a few doors down and I had been going to their temple together doing genealogical research for weeks. I was the first (possibly only) neighbor who went over to introduce myself when they moved in, brought some little housewarming gift, etc. To this day (years later) we have no contact because I’m not in their church. They have created a de facto tribe of church members, and I was (and am) not ‘one of them.’

    • The modern tribe can be ethnic based, but really it does seem to stem from a common experience. One group I know all went to the same summer camp. Another group was based around the friendship of three guys who in turn brought in their girlfriends, wives, others to knit together a close group of friends.

      My tribe is centered around my college years and a group of people I shared a dorm with. We then have ‘adopted’ a few others along the way, but we live all over the map. We want to be more involved in each other’s lives but fail because of a variety of reasons.

      Religion has always been a poor basis for a modern tribe because there comes a time of ‘shunning’ and ‘judgment’ which is more about culling the tribe instead of building it. Due to our mobile society, as you mentioned, modern tribes have a natural thinning over time, no need to chase off people.

  2. I think part of the problem of why social structures are so fragmented is because we are such a mobile society. People move, and lose touch with people they have ‘history’ or ‘roots’ with, a shared background and common interests. Now as you said we rely on co-workers and casual acquaintances to fill social roles in our lives, but the bonds are shallow and easily uprooted (to extend the metaphor). I think that’s why we reach out to people on the internet even, the way we’ve gathered in the cyberpunkchats on Twitter even. We start off with a common interest. Most of my co-workers are like an alien species to me, I have nothing outside of work to talk with them about. Party planning is all well and good, mothering has its place, logistics are sometimes necessary, but doesn’t guarantee a real deep connection, which is what it takes to get people to make that effort to stay in touch.

    • Part of what I’m doing is analyzing my social circle of really close friends and figure out why we go months without seeing each other but spend countless hours with people we barely know. I’m looking at other social groups that ‘make it work’ despite being spread out over a region. Having real world connections are important for the little stuff… who is going to help move, watch your kids, check in on your pets when you are on vacation. We rely more and more on strangers for these activities, sharing our most treasured intimate life moments with people who couldn’t really care less.

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