Book Review: "Tribal Leadership"

Tribal Leadership is an interesting and intriguing leadership book which provides a taxonomy of intra-organisational cultures, based on a view of culture as ‘a self-correcting system of language.’ (p. 265) By restricting their investigation to culture, and relating culture so closely to language, the authors show a preference towards linguistic determinism. While this hypothesis is by no means universally accepted, (see Pinker, 2007) and certainly not in the original Sapir-Whorfian breadth, it seems reasonable to accept the idea that language can be indicative of tribal culture—although it seems hardly earth-shattering that a study concentrated purely on language and culture would conclude that “leadership constructs are born out of language and culture.” (p. 273)

Their concept that culture can be ‘upgraded’ by the same linguistic determinism smacks somewhat of neurolinguistic programming: see Yemm’s (2006) advice that NLP techniques

can be used alongside more conventional management tools and add strength to a manager’s skills-set. Combining these with attention to the specific words and language can lead to insights for moving forward or overcoming problems.

Yet the curious fact is that even the authors seem unconvinced that cultural development is achieved through a purely linguistic approach, as the ‘coaching tips’ provided are not language-based: socialising in triads rather than pairs (p. 71, p. 197), encouraging team-based instead of individual projects (p. 105), assigning people to small short-term projects (p. 74), and so on.

As well as contending with NLP-based ideas, Christian leaders must consider how they feel about, essentially, the need to pass from ‘you’ language (the authors’ Stage 2) to ‘I’ language (Stage 3) before a group can progress to ‘we’ language. In other words, to encourage a group to align around a common cause it is necessary to first promote ego-centric self-promotion. One may wonder if another way is possible.

Nevertheless, while Stage 4 ‘we’ operation ought to be the natural mode for Christian leaders, (something the book acknowledges) there is the tendency to try to be what Bell (2005) calls ‘super- pastor’. (Essentially, a Stage 3 leader working for his own advancement, even if this is motivated by a sense of obligation or responsibility.) Bell’s epiphany in realising the need to ‘kill your inner superpastor’ resonates with Tribal Leaderships’ ‘epiphany’ (ch. 7) of realising the difference between ‘success and accomplishment.’ Such an epiphany requires a prepared and open mind—what the authors call ‘ears to hear,’ (p. 141) a concept which again should not be unfamiliar to Christian leaders.

Another ethical struggle with the concept of Tribal Leadership is the idea that tribal leaders ‘need to use shocking methods to strengthen the tribe.’ (p. 124) While Christian leaders should not shy away from difficult decisions, the deliberate puncturing (or ostracizing) of overinflated egos is a task that must be handled with sensitivity and love; the Christian leader does not have the liberty to commit ‘atrocities’ or ‘executions’ of Stage 3 team members, even for the good of the tribe. For a book which spends much of its time proclaiming the need for ethically-minded leadership, when radical change is necessary the authors suddenly appear somewhat value-free: “the tribe” itself becomes the summum bonum, legitimizing any activity in its wake.

These twin issues—promotion of egocentrism and moral ambivalence—require the Christian leader to engage in their own critical reflection around the area of ‘Stage 3’ tribes and leaders.

Perhaps two insights would be helpful; firstly, the mention of ‘ears to hear’ reminds one of the praxis of Jesus in communicating epiphanic lessons through value-laden parables—‘Tribal Leadership’ touches on the role of story to provide cohesion to a group but not its role in bringing about cultural change. Considering further the leadership of Jesus, Adair (2001:118) argues that Jesus’ confrontation with James and John in Mark 10 shows that it is possible to maintain tribal unity in the face of Stage 3 self-aggrandisement—and it is this very occasion that gives rise to Jesus’ exposition of servant leadership.

Secondly, the mention of ubuntu (p. 126) as a realisation leading to Stage 4 epiphany; studies are already beginning (Kapolyo, 2005) to investigate the use of ubuntu as an organising framework for Christian activity.

In short, ‘Tribal Leadership’ is useful as a diagnostic guide to the condition of teams and individuals, but more engagement with its ethical dimensions are required before it can be recommended as a guide to changing organisational culture.