Are You Leading a Tribe?


In today's organizations, everyone is expected to lead. If you've been waiting for a leadership role to come to you, it might be time to step up and seek out your opportunity to be a leader. Look around you: Self-proclaimed leaders are receiving interesting projects, building enviable careers, and being promoted. In this article, we'll take a look at how Seth Godin's book Tribes can provide a useful framework for leading from the ground up.

This is the first article in a series bringing concepts from business books into an IT context. We’re starting with Seth Godin’s Tribes. Tribes is a book encouraging all of us to consider ourselves leaders. It provides a framework for leading from the ground up and offers several inspiring examples of individuals without authority or position creating positive change in their organizations or on behalf of worthwhile causes.

In today’s organizations, everyone is expected to lead. If you’ve been waiting for a leadership role to come to you, it might be time to step up and seek out your opportunity to be a leader. If you look around you, self-proclaimed leaders are receiving interesting projects, building enviable careers, and being promoted.

What Is a Tribe?
A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. Your local parent-teacher organization is a tribe. So are your CBAP or PMP study group, your project management office, and each of your project teams. Your entire organization might be a tribe and, if you have tight relationships with your customers, people outside of your organization might be inside of your tribe.

As individuals we belong to several tribes. A hundred years ago, tribes were primarily local. With today’s technologies, tribes are more often connected by an idea than a location.

Who Leads a Tribe?
A tribe has a leader. You might already lead one or more tribes. I consider myself a leader of a tribe over at Bridging the Gap, part of the business analyst community. I am a follower in the “One Small Change” movement, a group of eco-conscious citizens who make one small change each month to reduce their impact on the environment.

In my formal role as a manager of a project management, business analyst, and QA team, my team was not a tribe because we did not have a central shared idea and largely operated as small “teams” within a larger group. Just having the same leader (or in this case authority figure) did not make us a tribe. But I did lead a loose tribe of product managers across the organization who shared a goal for improving our products and sharing technology investments. Several of my best direct-reports led small project-focused tribes and others led tribes to improve aspects of how we ran as an IT team.

Unlike running for city government or becoming CEO, no one anoints you as tribe leader. Leading a tribe means leading from the bottom, not from a place of authority.What Does It Mean to Lead?
Participating isn’t leading. If you go to every local professional chapter meeting, you are participating but not leading. If you sit in on a meeting but don’t voice your opinion or sign-up to contribute, you are a participant. Leading is not just about showing up. It’s not just about sending in your resume and hoping for the best.

Leading is not about publishing a status report that communicates progress and highlights risks and calling it a day. Leading is about finding the people who can do something about the risk, connecting them together, and motivating them to overcome it.

Leading is about generating a movement or, if that seems too big, just generating movement. A movement is about creating a new future. In a movement, a shared interest becomes a passionate goal. The members of your tribe desire change and are involved in making the change happen.

<--pagebreak-->How Do I Lead a Tribe?
Leaders empower the tribe to communicate. Effective tribes, those that create change, are tight. They communicate effectively. They share thoughts and ideas and motivate action. They build momentum because each person can see where her efforts fit into the direction of the whole. With support from their peers, many tribe members will do what they always wanted to do—and always knew they could do—but never quite got around to doing. You might say that leadership generates positive peer pressure.

All of a sudden, leadership doesn’t seem so big anymore. Suddenly, you might be thinking of yourself as a leader—someone who creates positive change and engenders productive communication.

Can My Community of Practice Be a Tribe?
For the sake of extending these concepts to familiar real-world structures, let’s think of communities as tribes:

Who is the leader? Anyone who steps up to create the momentum for change.

What is the movement? Improving how we do what we do or delivering a better service than we do today.

What change is desired? You might find this in your charter or your vision for the group. If it’s not there, this is a great place to start a conversation with the community members about what change they desire.

Who is passionate about the change? Look for the people doing the work and the people impacted by the outcome of the work. Pay attention to people who care. They might voice frustrations or talk about a better way.

How can we tighten communication? Give the people in the community tools to share ideas and practices. Externalize any signs of progress and share success stories within and without the group.

In Tribes, Godin shares a story of leading a project early in his career with close to no authority and few resources. He started a bi-weekly newsletter sharing the great progress his project was making and highlighting the achievements of various team members. Within the span of a year, nearly every person in the company was assigned to or moonlighting on his project. And the success of the project saved the company.

Does your community of practice have a goal that people can get excited about? Do you share success stories and point out what people are doing right? Do you create energy around your ideas? Do people have a reason to do the hard work of change?

Can My Project Team Be a Tribe?
In a typical IT project team, there’s a sponsor and possibly a project manager “heading the effort.” What if one of these individuals took on the role of tribe leader? Or, what if someone else from the team took on this role? I’ve actually been on a few successful projects where a passive project manager was successful because he created negative space into which other team members could step in and lead. At the time this infuriated me, but now I wonder if it was intentional genius.

Consider the communication that happens between project team members. What tools can you provide to enable real-time knowledge sharing between members? Is information locked in emails and status reports, or is it readily visible so that all members can see what progress the tribe is making? Momentum engages—it creates excitement. How can you lead to encourage momentum? Do you need to dig in and create movement, or is it time to step back and allow other leaders to emerge?

What’s the Most Important Trait of a Leader?
Leaders are generous. Start with “What’s in it for me?”, and you’ll end up with a non-tribe of one. Start by giving, and you’ll see the change you are driving happen more quickly.

Leaders do what they do because they believe in their tribe and believe in an idea that’s bigger than themselves. And our true fans—those followers and micro-leaders who actively participate in creating change and bringing new people into the tribe—demand generosity and bravery. Leaders ensure that everyone involved in supporting the tribe comes out ahead.

What Can I Do Today?
Ask yourself, what can I give this community of practice? Share an idea. Connect a few colleagues in a discussion about how to solve an important problem. Find someone doing something right and give her kudos and a platform to share her insights with others.

What can I give to the project team? Team members may need protection from outside distractions or stronger connections to the project influencers. A regularly updated project schedule could help show momentum, or a collaborative tool to share and track progress might be more widely accepted.

Who in your tribe needs to connect? Connect one member to another and create initial communication loops that make the tribe stronger and tighter.

What risks are you avoiding and hoping someone else steps up to handle? Tackle the challenge head-on and do what it takes to create a successful outcome.

No one anoints you a leader, and you don’t have to be the project manager or the community of practice leader to take on this role. This is a role you choose for yourself, and it’s a role you choose to invest in. I’d like to personally invite you to the tribe of leadership. Connect others together. Create a positive vision for change. Make something happen. Give. And watch your work take on a passion and be instilled with new life.

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