Tribal Business School

Enliven your conference with a fresh way of discovering the eternal lessons of leadership.

Trying surviving without all those corporate life support systems which both enable us and imprison us at the same time. Throw away the electronic fetters of phone, internet, email and computer. Get rid of health and safety, legal, HR, IT, facilities, brand police, accounting. All gone. Now try leading. And to make it more interesting, if you mess up you do not lose a bonus, or promotion, or your job. You lose your life.

This is the reality that traditional societies face. And yet they have survived for far longer than most of the excellent companies we are meant to copy. The FTSE 100 was created in 1984, just one generation ago. Of those original 100 companies, just 28 remain today. The rest have been overtaken or taken over. A tribe which only survives one generation is not a very successful tribe. So maybe, just maybe, we can learn from these great survivors: they survive far longer, with far fewer resources and in far harsher conditions that most of the firms that are lionised in the media.

Tribal Business School is based on seven years of work with tribes from Mali to Mongolia, the Arctic to Australia via Papua New Guinea and beyond. The result is a wholly original and authentic way of looking again at the challenges of change and leadership. Tribal Business School events are typically configured either as keynote speeches (20 minutes to one hour) or as team development workshops (from 3 hours to 3 day).

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Tribes and High Impact Conferences

Just because someone was first to go up Everest on a pogo stick, backwards and naked, does not make them an instant expert on leadership. Theymay be entertaining, but they will not be enlightening.

But equally, having a self proclaimed guru wave his arms on stage and explain his brilliant new theory of leadership does not help: theories are dull and everyone will be wondering why, if the speaker knows so much about leadership, they are not leading.

So a good speaker will both entertain and enlighten your team. You need something original and practical, inspiring and insightful. That is a tall order. Tribes fill the need.

Tribal leadership is leadership stripped bare, without all the trappings of corporate life.

Groups all understand the tribal analogy: every business is tribal and every department and business unit has its own tribal identity. And the tribal analogy is very unthreatening: it does not say this is the perfect way of leading and you are a failure if you do not do it this way. Instead, it invites everyone to see their reality through a different window. It invites them to come on a journey of discovery: through photos and stories they can rediscover the eternal truths about what turns any leader into a good.

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The 12 Lessons of Tribal Leadership

1: Change or Die

Tribes appear to be unchanged in thousands of years. It was the satellite dish outside the yurt in Outer Mongolia that told me appearances can be deceptive. Every tribe I have worked with has been a tribe in transition.

Sometimes change is aspirational: the desire for a satellite dish or, more often, education for the next generation. But frequently, change is a matter of survival.

Shillingi drew his life map. It was a life of unremitting bloodshed and bravery: hunting animals and defending territory. And then at the end, he drew a picture of himself looking after all the animals he used to slaughter. I asked him what that was all about.

“We have had four years of drought. All the animals are dying. If they die, we die. We need the animals. So instead of hunting them, we have decided to look after them and then perhaps tourists will pay to look at them as well.”

So he had gone from hunting animals to farming tourists. As corporate change programmes go, that is as radical as you can get. For tribal people, change is not a matter of improving margins: it is a matter of survival. Change or die. And ultimately, the same lessons apply to top organisations. The reason that 72 out of the top 100 have failed to stay at the top is not that they all became stupid: they simply failed to change far and fast enough. Change or go out of business.

1: Change or Die

2: Focus Focus Focus

I was with the salt caravan going to Timbuktu and I asked my Arab guide to draw a map of his territory. It looked a little dull: just black and white. But I started by asking him about the scene at the top.
Ahmed replied: "You asked me to draw what is important in my territory. We are in the Sahara. Water is important. And that is a well."

Fair enough. So I asked him about the scene at the bottom. Ahmed raised an eyebrow, which for him is the equivalent of a baby throwing all its toys out of the pram. But he humoured me.

"We are in the Sahara. I told you. Water is important. And so that is a camel, taking water from the well."

I thought there must be more to his map. So I asked him about the blobs beneath the top scene: they looked like dead animals with their legs in the air.
This time Ahmed raised both eyebrows. "Let me explain. This is the Sahara. The only thing that matters is water. Without it we die. And so those are water bags. For water. So we do not die."
Ahmed was totally clear about what mattered. And I am yet to meet a CEO or leader who wants less focus. Focus, focus focus.

What is the water in your territory?

2: Focus Focus Focus

3: Competitive Advantage

The problem with a fair fight is that you might lose it. Any competitive strategy should be based on having a thoroughly unfair advantage. This is a lesson all tribal people know instinctively, as I found out when I learned how to kill a lion.

To prove your valour and become a warrior, each cohort of young men has to kill a lion. Killing a lion in single handed combat would indeed be very brave. It would also be very stupid. Instead, the young men keep a look out for a lion while about their normal business. Hopefully, they spot one upwind which can not smell them. They then creep up on the lion very quietly and shoot some poison tip arrows at the lion. They then run like crazy to the nearest lion proof tree.

From a safe distance they watch the lion die, they then cut its tail off and go back to the village where they are rewarded with a very gruesome initiation ceremony.

None of this is remotely fair on the poor lion. It is not meant to be. Unlike the Olympics, it is the winning that counts, not the taking part. The same is true of business. Most great businesses have a source of unfair advantage where they earn super profits: if you have a near monopoly of desk top operating systems it is hard to go wrong; or perhaps you have the best place to drill oil; or you have inherited an iconic brand like coca cola, or you have a stranglehold on a scarce resource like Heathrow landing slots. All of these businesses follow the dictum of Warren Buffet who likes a business “which any fool can run, because some day some fool will run it”.

What is your source of unfair advantage?

3: Competitive Advantage

4: Relative Advantage

Forget all the hype about excellence. You do not need to be excellent to succeed. You need to be less incompetent than your competition.

This lesson was taught to me by a randy ostrich. I had strayed onto its territory, and it objected. So it attacked. Unfortunately, ostriches are one of the fast land animals around, and I am not one of the fastest. And ostriches have an unpleasant habit of disembowelling people they dislike. Although in truth, I was more likely to die of shame. Being eaten by a crocodile or lion at least gives your descendants something to talk about, but being killed by a randy ostrich ...oh please.

Fortunately I was with two other people. Although I am slow, they were slower.

So I did what any sensible coward would do and ran. I had relative advantage and I survived. As for the others...let’s just say the rest of the trip was a little frosty.

4: Relative Advantage

5: The Perfect Leader

With time on our hands we argued about which animal is the king of the plains. We got nowhere, so agreed we would create the perfect predator out of all the animals we had seen. The resulting beast had the jaws of a crocodile, ears of an elephant, neck of a giraffe, wings of an eagle, hide of a rhino, legs of a cheetah and tail of a scorpion. And it promptly died under the weight of its own improbability.

If you read the research, the perfect leader is detailed and visionary, controlling and empowering, ambitious and humble, fact and people focused, creative and disciplined, cost and revenue focused: they are a cornucopia of contradictions.

Like the perfect predator, the perfect leader will die under the weight of improbability.

The truth is that no leader gets ticks in all the boxes. All are imperfect, so how do they thrive? The answer came from looking at the backsides of 700 reindeer as temperatures hovered around minus twenty centigrade for a week or so. We were herding the reindeer on their annual migration. They survived incredibly hostile conditions, but would not last a minute on the plains of the Serengeti. Equally, put a lion in the Arctic and you will not have a happy lion. So there is no such thing as a perfect predator or perfect leader. There are only animals and leaders who fit their environment.

To succeed as a leader, find the environment which works for you: one which allows you to showcase your signature strengths while minimising the need to rely on areas which are not so strong.

5: The Perfect Leader

6: Leaving a Legacy

This is a short history test. Try to remember all the Prime Ministers since the second world war (or presidents and leaders of your country). Now try to remember something about them. When I ask this of large groups, the result is that most (but not all) Prime Ministers are recalled. Some leaders are so anonymous, no one can even remember that they existed. And most of the rest are remembered for the wrong thing: smoking pipes, sailing, scandals or disasters. Only two are remembered roughly how they want to be remembered: Attlee for the Welfare state and Thatcher for the Thatcher revolution.

Now do the same exercise on CEOs of your business. In most cases, they will be remembered for how they were, not for what they achieved. Do the same exercise on the presentations and training sessions you have attended over the last year. The chances are that you remember the person, not the content.

So how will you be remembered, if at all? It will not be for the brilliant way you handled the ACME crisis. It will be for how you are and how you behave.

You can choose how you want to be remembered. Choose well.

6: Leaving a Legacy

7: Respect for the Individual

The elder asked me what values are important in my country. “Respect for the individual” I replied, without thinking too hard. Respect people regardless of their age, race, religion, sex or sexuality seems a good start.
The elder turned pale with shock. He was horrified. It seemed to him like a recipe for conflict, competition, infighting, politics and selfishness. Not that any firm suffers such symptoms, do they?

"Aren’t you missing something far more important?" asked the elder. He saw my confusion and put me out of misery: "what about respect for the community?"

In the tribal world, the individual does not survive unless the community survives. The same is not true in our world: if they firm goes down , we keep going. But many of the strongest organisations do create a sense of mission and purpose which gives everyone a sense of pride in belonging: respect for the community. The church, the army and many non-profit organisations manage to get individuals to put the community first with outstanding results. In the profit world, there are plenty of firms which create a strong sense of pride and belonging. Long after people have left, they are still proud to have worked for McKinsey, Procter & Gamble, Goldman Sachs or Toyota.

All firms should have respect for the individual. Great firms also build respect for the community.

7: Respect for the Individual

8: Responsibility

It was Choidog’s big day. He was being recognised as a National Living Treasure in Mongolia, and there was a big celebration for him. As the champion horse trainer in a horse mad country, the main event was a horse race. There were 200 horses charging over the steppe like the Mongol horde in full flow.

The race was, of course, fixed. Choidog’s horse was meant to win, so that he would win a motorbike, which means something out there. Half way in the 12km race, the saddle on Choidog’s horse came lose. The child jockey dismounted, fixed the saddle, got back on and raced like the wind. Incredibly, he very nearly won at the finishing line. But very nearly does not get you a motorbike.

Choidog’s big day had just been ruined. And his reaction? “It was my fault. I should have checked the saddle. And I should have briefed the jockey: just let the saddle slip off and ride bareback.” With that, he smiled and offered me some more foul fermented mare’s milk. It is an acquired taste well worth not acquiring. Choidog went on to enjoy the rest of the day.

The hardest thing for any leader to take responsibility for is their own feelings. Our little cloud of gloom can spread like a major depression across the office.

And this matters. Long after our heroic achievement in beating budget by 6.8% has been forgotten, people will remember us for who we were and how we were. We can choose how we feel: we are not victims of circumstance. If we lose a race we can feel bitter and angry, or we can smile and move on having become wiser in the process.

Good leaders learn to wear the mask of leadership. However we may feel inside, we can at least project the right face to the world, because that is how we will be remembered.

8: Responsibility

9: Courage

From time immemorial, leaders have needed courage. Alexander the Great did not become great by plotting from behind a desk: he became great by leading from the front.

In Papua New Guinea, Sir Joseph Nomburi found two tribes about to go to war because someone had been thrown down the well. Joseph decided the only way to find out what had gone on was to get the body out of the well. As the District Commissioner, he could have told anyone to go down. But he was the leader, so he went down, fearing it might be a one way trip. An hour later he emerged triumphant: the tribal person had survived the fall. And he had not been thrown in, he had fallen in dead drunk. So instead of having a war, the two tribes decided to celebrate. But they did not go too close to the well again. Courage has always counted for a leader.

Today, a leader does not need physical courage to prepare a powerpoint presentation. But leaders still need courage.

Kissinger defined leadership as the art of taking people where they would not have got by themselves. By definition, that means taking some sort of risk: stretching and pushing people. If you want to make a difference, you have to take a risk and that takes courage.

Are you brave enough to lead?

9: Courage

10: Plan B

I decided to be a maharaja for a day. That means I got to ride an elephant and go on safari. We saw no wild life: the elephant trampled all the bushes and scared all the animals. I returned as dusk fell and was warned it was far too dangerous to walk the two miles back to camp because of the danger of wild animals. I had seen none all day, so I chose to walk.

Twenty minutes later I felt the earth move, for all the wrong reasons. I looked up to see an elephant charging at me. So I dashed into the bush barefoot in a forlorn hope of finding an elephant proof tree to climb up. The elephant did not find me, but all the leeches did as I fumbled through the undergrowth: completely lost in the dark with no shoes and faintly aware that there was an irate elephant out there trying to trample me to death.

The next time I got charged by an elephant I was in Africa and had learned my lesson. I had a plan B: I already knew my escape route. So when an adolescent elephant in musk let his hormones get the better of him, I was prepared. I made my get away and had no leeches to show for it either.

As in the bush, so in business. Always have a plan B. If you depend only on one option you are at risk.

If everything depends on your boss, you are not a team member, you are a slave. If you have no back up in a negotiation, you will be screwed. If your project depends on everything working smoothly, you put yourself at risk. Always have a back up, always have a plan B.

10: Plan B

11: Learning to Lead

I asked Chief John how the village decided who would be chief. "everyone sits down argues about it and then we all agree”. It is democracy, of a sort. So who did he think would succeed him?
"My son, of course! Just like I succeeded my father and he succeeded his. That is, of course, if the village agrees. But they will. Because from the day my son was born he has seen me lead. He knows what it takes. He knows all the agreements I have made, all the disputes I have brokered in the village. He is the living repository of all the village knowledge."

Chief John had just made the case for a hereditary democracy. The North Koreans would have been proud of him. But he had also shown how people learn to lead. Chief John could not learn from books or courses, because he could not read and there are no tribal leadership courses. He learned from his own experience and the experience of others. And that is how business leaders learn: we learn from our own experience and the experience we observe of our peers, bosses and role models.

But there is a problem with learning from experience: it is a random walk. If we bump into good experiences, we accelerate our careers. If we bump into bad experiences, we hit a dead end.

As leaders, our first responsibility is to make sure we get the right experiences and that we are in the right place to showcase and develop our talents.

And books and courses? They may not teach you how to lead, but they can help you make sense of the nonsense around you, and they can help you take some of the randomness out of the random walk of experience.

11: Learning to Lead

12: Luck

It had been a hard trip, so I was happy to see civilisation again: a hotel with a corrugated iron roof and barbed wire for a wall. I slumped into a deep sleep. Net morning, I woke up and went to the bathroom. A miracle happened: clear running water came from a tap. I did not need to walk three kilometres through the bush to collect muddy water from a crocodile infested river. A moment later another miracle happened: I turned another tap on and warmish water came out. I did not need to collect any brushwood for a fire.

I had been used to waking up in the middle of wars, disasters and scandal: it was called waking up with the radio. Instead, I now wake up to two miracles in two minutes every morning. After that, it is pretty hard to have a bad day. Although I try, sometimes.

As we battle with unreasonable deadlines, demanding bosses, changing goals, awkward colleagues and inadequate resources it is tempting to become frustrated. But these things simply obscure the reality of how incredibly lucky we are. Value the miracles of modern life and all the other challenges fall into perspective.

We are all on different journeys with different challenges, but whatever your journey is, enjoy it.

12: Luck

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