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Notes from Tribes

Planted 02021-06-24

Last edited: September 8, 2020

A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.

We want to belong not to just one tribe, it turns out, but to many. And if you give us tools and make it easy, we’ll keep joining.

If the tribe doesn’t like the king, they’re now free to leave.

Marketing used to be about advertising, and advertising is expensive. Today, marketing is about engaging with the tribe and delivering products and services with stories that spread.

The old rule was simple: The best way to grow an organization was to be reliable and consistent and trusted, and bit by bit, gain market share. Rapid change was the enemy, because that led to uncertainty and to risk and to failure. People turned and ran.

New rule: If you want to grow, you need to find customers who are willing to join you or believe in you or donate to you or support you. And guess what? The only customers willing to do that are looking for something new. The growth comes from change and light and noise.

“Perhaps you work at a big organization. Perhaps you feel as though there’s just too much resistance to change. Here’s a question: Is your organization stiffer than the Pentagon? More bureaucratic or formalized? Thomas Barnett changed the Pentagon. From the bottom. No, he wasn’t on KP duty, but he was close. He had no status, no rank—he was just a researcher with a big idea.

From Wall Street Journal

Mr. Barnett overhauled the concept to address more directly the post-9/11 world. The result is a three-hour PowerPoint presentation that more resembles performance art than a Pentagon briefing. It’s making Mr. Barnett, 41 years old, a key figure in the debate currently raging about what the modern military should look like. Senior military officials say his decidedly controversial ideas are influencing the way the Pentagon views its enemies, vulnerabilities and future structure.

A crowd is a tribe without a leader. A crowd is a tribe without communication.

It takes only two things to turn a group of people into a tribe:

  • A shared interest
  • A way to communicate

The communication can be one of four kinds:

  • Leader to tribe
  • Tribe to leader
  • Tribe member to tribe member
  • Tribe member to outsider

So a leader can help increase the effectiveness of the tribe and its members by:

  • transforming the shared interest into a passionate goal and desire for change;
  • providing tools to allow members to tighten their communications; and
  • leveraging the tribe to allow it to grow and gain new members.

Senator Bill Bradley defines a movement as having three elements:

  1. A narrative that tells a story about who we are and the future we’re trying to build
  2. A connection between and among the leader and the tribe
  3. Something to do—the fewer limits, the better

Three steps: motivate, connect, and leverage.

It’s now clear that we want novelty and style and, most of all, stuff that’s great. If you want us to follow you, don’t be boring.

The tactics are irrelevant, and the technology will always be changing. The essential lesson is that every day it gets easier to tighten the relationship you have with the people who choose to follow you.

Organizations that destroy the status quo win. Individuals who push their organizations, who inspire other individuals to change the rules, thrive.

Whatever the status quo is, changing it gives you the opportunity to be remarkable.

The organizations of the future are filled with smart, fast, flexible people on a mission. The thing is, that requires leadership. If you don’t have a time-tested manual, you can’t manage your way through this. In unstable times, growth comes from leaders who create change and engage their organizations, instead of from managers who push their employees to do more for less.

Ordinary folks can dream up remarkable stuff fairly easily. What’s missing is the will to make the ideas happen. In a battle between two ideas, the best one doesn’t necessarily win. No, the idea that wins is the one with the most fearless heretic behind it.

The levers are here. The proof is here. The power is here. The only thing holding you back is your own fear. Not easy to admit, but essential to understand.

Here’s the marketing math:

  1. Ideas that spread, win.
  2. Boring ideas don’t spread. Boring organizations don’t grow.
  3. Working in an environment that’s static is no fun.
  4. Even worse, working for an organization that is busy fighting off change is horrible. So why haven’t you and your team launched as many purple cows as you’d like?

We choose not to be remarkable because we’re worried about criticism. We hesitate to create innovative movies, launch new human resource initiatives, design a menu that makes diners take notice, or give an audacious sermon because we’re worried, deep down, that someone will hate it and call us on it.

“How was your day? If your answer is “fine,” then I don’t think you were leading.

So the challenge, as you contemplate your next opportunity to be boring or remarkable, is to answer these two questions:

First, If I get criticized for this, will I suffer any measurable impact? Will I lose my job, get hit upside the head with a softball bat, or lose important friendships?

If the only side effect of the criticism is that you will feel bad about the criticism, then you have to compare that bad feeling with the benefits you’ll get from actually doing something worth doing. Being remarkable is exciting, fun, profitable, and great for your career. Feeling bad wears off.

And then, once you’ve compared the bad feeling and the benefits, and you’ve sold yourself on taking the remarkable path, answer this one:

Second, How can I create something that critics will criticize?

It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle.

When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.

The one path that never works is the most common one: doing nothing at all. Nothing at all feels safe and it takes very little effort. It involves a lot of rationalization and a bit of hiding as well.

Showing up isn’t sufficient.

Curious is the key word. It has nothing to do with income, nothing to do with education, and certainly nothing to do with organized religion. It has to do with a desire to understand, a desire to try, a desire to push whatever envelope is interesting. Leaders are curious because they can’t wait to find out what the group is going to do next. The changes in the tribe are what are interesting, and curiosity drives them.

Nobody is going to listen to your idea for change, sagely shake his head, and say, “Sure, go do that.” No one anoints you as leader. Nobody is going to see your PowerPoint presentation and hand you a check. Change isn’t made by asking permission. Change is made by asking forgiveness, later.

You can recognize the need for faith in your idea, you can find the tribe you need to support you, and yes, you can create a new religion around your faith. Steve Jobs did it on purpose at Apple and Phil Knight is famous for doing it at Nike.

The easiest thing is to react. The second easiest thing is to respond. But the hardest thing is to initiate.

Response is always better than reaction. But both pale in comparison to initiative.

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, said, “Google’s not a real company. It’s a house of cards.” He also said, “There can’t be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That’s for sure.”

Over and over, everyone is wrong—unless you believe that innovation can change things, that heretics can break the rules, and that remarkable products and services spread. If you believe that, then you’re not everyone. Then you’re right.

Over and over, we see something happen. When you hire amazing people and give them freedom, they do amazing stuff. And the sheepwalkers and their bosses watch and shake their heads, certain that this is an exception and that it is way too risky for their industry or their customer base.

Think for a second about the people you know who are engaged, satisfied, eager to get to work. Most of them, I’ll bet, make change. They challenge the status quo and push something forward—something they believe in. They lead.

“Life’s too short” is repeated often enough to be a cliché, but this time it’s true. You don’t have enough time to be both unhappy and mediocre. It’s not just pointless, it’s painful. Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from.

So how was your day?

The key elements in creating a micromovement consist of five things to do and six principles:

  1. Publish a manifesto. Give it away and make it easy for the manifesto to spread far and wide. It doesn’t have to be printed or even written. But it’s a mantra and a motto and a way of looking at the world. It unites your tribe members and gives them a structure.
  2. Make it easy for your followers to connect with you. It could be as simple as visiting you or e-mailing you or watching you on television. Or it could be as rich and complex as interacting with you on Facebook or joining your social network on Ning.
  3. Make it easy for your followers to connect with one another. There’s that little nod that one restaurant regular gives to another recognized regular. Or the shared drink in an airport lounge. Even better is the camaraderie developed by volunteers on a political campaign or insiders involved in a new product launch. Great leaders figure out how to make these interactions happen.
  4. Realize that money is not the point of a movement. Money exists merely to enable it. The moment you try to cash out is the moment you stunt the growth of your movement.
  5. Track your progress. Do it publicly and create pathways for your followers to contribute to that progress.


  1. Transparency really is your only option. Every failed televangelist has learned this the hard way. The people who follow you aren’t stupid. You might go down in scandal or, more likely, from ennui. People can smell subterfuge from a mile away.
  2. Your movement needs to be bigger than you. An author and his book, for example, don’t constitute a movement. Changing the way people apply to college does.
  3. Movements that grow, thrive. Every day they get better and more powerful. You’ll get there soon enough. Don’t mortgage today just because you’re in a hurry.
  4. Movements are made most clear when compared to the status quo or to movements that work to push the other direction. Movements do less well when compared to other movements with similar goals. Instead of beating them, join them.
  5. Exclude outsiders. Exclusion is an extremely powerful force for loyalty and attention. Who isn’t part of your movement matters almost as much as who is.
  6. Tearing others down is never as helpful to a movement as building your followers up.

People show up because they have to, not because they want to. Desire is defeated by fear, and the status quo calcifies, leading to the long slow death of the stalled organization.

Tribes are the most effective media channels ever, but they’re not for sale or for rent. Tribes don’t do what you want; they do what they want. Which is why joining and leading a tribe is such a powerful marketing investment.

The secret is being willing to be wrong. The secret is realizing that wrong isn’t fatal. The only thing that makes people and organizations great is their willingness to be not great along the way. The desire to fail on the way to reaching a bigger goal is the untold secret of success.

The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Find the others.

  • If you hear my idea but don’t believe it, that’s not your fault; it’s mine.
  • If you see my new product but don’t buy it, that’s my failure, not yours.
  • If you attend my presentation and you’re bored, that’s my fault too.
  • If I fail to persuade you to implement a policy that supports my tribe, that’s due to my lack of passion or skill, not your shortsightedness.
  • If you are a student in my class and you don’t learn what I’m teaching, I’ve let you down.

It’s really easy to blame the user/student/prospect/customer for not trying hard, for being too stupid to get it, or for not caring enough to pay attention. It might even be tempting to blame those in your tribe who aren’t working as hard at following as you are at leading. But none of this is helpful. What’s helpful is to realize that you have a choice when you communicate.

Growth doesn’t come from persuading the most loyal members of other tribes to join you. Instead, you’ll find more fertile ground among seekers, among people who desire the feeling they get when they’re part of a vibrant, growing tribe, but who are still looking for that feeling. I’m talking about people at the fringes, individuals who might jump from one thing to another with less angst.

Does it really matter that you know?

Because, of course, it has nothing to do with knowing how the trick is done, and everything to do with the art of doing it. The tactics of leadership are easy. The art is the difficult part.

Seven elements of leaders:

  1. Leaders challenge the status quo.
  2. Leaders create a culture around their goal and involve others in that culture.
  3. Leaders have an extraordinary amount of curiosity about the world they’re trying to change.
  4. Leaders use charisma (in a variety of forms) to attract and motivate followers.
  5. Leaders communicate their vision of the future.
  6. Leaders commit to a vision and make decisions based on that commitment.
  7. Leaders connect their followers to one another.

Remarkable visions and genuine insight are always met with resistance. And when you start to make progress, your efforts are met with even more resistance. Products, services, career paths—whatever it is, the forces for mediocrity will align to stop you, forgiving no errors and never backing down until it’s over. If it were any other way, it would be easy. And if it were any other way, everyone would do it and your work would ultimately be devalued. The yin and yang are clear: without people pushing against your quest to do something worth talking about, it’s unlikely to be worth the journey. Persist.

Flynn Berry wrote that you should never use the word “opportunity.” It’s not an opportunity, it’s an obligation. I don’t think we have any choice. I think we have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game, and to play it better than anyone has any right to believe is possible.

Credit isn’t the point. Change is.

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Leaders create things that didn’t exist before. They do this by giving the tribe a vision of something that could happen, but hasn’t (yet).

People don’t believe what you tell them.
They rarely believe what you show them.
They often believe what their friends tell them.
They always believe what they tell themselves.
What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change.