Case Studies

Wild Thinking

Tribes Have lots to Teach About Courage and the Value of Community.

By Kate Pavao

May 2008

Jo Owen spent seven years living with tribes in places like Mongolia and Papua New Guinea. In his new book, Tribal Business School: Lessons in Business Survival and Success from the Ultimate Survivors, Owen explains what executives can learn from the tribal leaders he met.

PROFIT: How did you come up with the idea for this book?

OWEN: I spent some time building a business in Japan, and I realized that the rules of survival and success are fundamentally different. Not better, not worse, but different. At other times, I visited various parts of the world and talked to people there. I found that how they live, how they survive, and how they succeed is also based on a different set of principles. The people who live in the last great wildernesses have none of the corporate life-support systems that both enable us and imprison us. They don't have HR, they don't have IT, they don't have computers, they don't have branding gurus. How do they survive without the things that we take for granted? And, incidentally, for them the price of failure isn't that they might miss a promotion or lose their job—they could lose their life.

Weekday Warriors
Jo Owen talks with Profit about the key characteristics of good—and bad—leaders, in any environment.

Courage. "A good leader absolutely needs courage to make decisions, get people to go where they would not have gone by themselves, and confront difficult and uncomfortable truths instead of quietly sweeping them under the table." Contribution. "When I meet people for the first time, I often say, 'What do you do?' And the reply that comes back is 'I'm a vice president' or 'I'm a partner' or 'I'm a director.' Does that tell you what they do? Not at all. They're not focusing on what they're contributing; they're focusing on their status and what they're taking out."

Responsibility. "Read any number of annual reports. When the results are up, it's always because of the brilliance and excellence of management. When the results are bad, it's because of government interference, unfair competition, the phase of the moon—nothing to do with management."

PROFIT: In the book, you say that different tribes tend to value the same qualities in their leaders: courage, contribution, and responsibility. What can business leaders learn from these values?

OWEN: In Kenya, I was out walking with a tribal warrior and suddenly out of the bush came a hyena at full speed. Then, a very small child with a very small stick came running, chasing the hyena. Reflect on that: In that one moment, had that child shown courage? Absolutely. Had he made a contribution? You bet. Protecting the wealth, the livelihood of the tribe. Had he taken responsibility? Of course he had. He didn't run off and try and convene a special hyena subcommittee of the wildlife management committee. He took action. So courage, contribution, and responsibility don't exist as a phrase, they exist in action, in what people do.

PROFIT: What is the one lesson that you want executives to walk away with?

OWEN: Everyone needs to build his or her own success model, and you're not going to get that just by applying the latest fad. You're going to get it by finding what really works in your own unique circumstances. To do that, you need to be able to ask the smart questions. The tribal model encourages us to challenge our assumptions about what "effective" or "successful" or "excellent" look like.

PROFIT: Has your research changed your own thinking as a business leader?

OWEN: I hope it has. I've come up through the classic road warrior background, which tends to be very task focused and outcome focused. One thing that's come out of doing this research is perhaps a little more humility, realizing that there are more ways of contributing and achieving self-satisfaction than simply working for the biggest bonus. The second bit is perhaps a bit more humanity. What I've learned from the tribes is, if we can make the whole community succeed—if we can succeed with and through other people—that is actually highly rewarding.

PROFIT: In your book, Tribal Business School: Lessons in Business Survival and Success from the Ultimate Survivors, you ask both tribal leaders and executives to draw their own maps. Can you describe this exercise and why it is important?

OWEN: To understand how tribes work, I asked the indigenous people to draw on a large piece of paper, either their life journey, or a map of their territory and what's important in it, or a map of their year. All the indigenous people were extraordinarily clear about what their territory was like, what their annual cycle was like, or what their life journey was like, past, present and future. There was a degree of clarity and certainly and focus and alignment across everyone about, "this is what it looks like." That absolutely resonated with this whole idea about putting the community first. The community was very clear about what it was about and how everyone could contribute to it.

We then said, "Well, let's try getting some businesses to map their territory and what's important to them." What we find absolutely consistently is that people map their territory in a very honest way. And honesty in a corporate environment is unusual, because we're all used to the PowerPoint game, the presentation game, the spreadsheet game, where we know how to massage messages, and spin the truth and present a case. With the mapping process, people haven't learned play the game yet, so they're just honest

PROFIT: What comes out of these sessions with business leaders?

OWEN: We find a few common themes coming up consistently. First is that the competition isn't in the market place, the competition is sitting at a desk nearby. They're the people who are going to take your promotion, your bonus pool, and compete for your budget pool. They're the really intense competition.

The second piece, which is related, is that for many employees, even senior ones, there's very low visibility of the marketplace, customers, and the competition. They only hear about it indirectly through sales or marketing or senior management occasionally.

The third theme that comes out is a profound lack of alignment between the different departments. They're all seeing their own department and their own agenda as being at the center of the universe. You can't have 15 different centers of the universe. There's a Copernican revolution they have to go through where they suddenly realize they're not the center of the universe, and maybe there are other important things that need to come out.

PROFIT: So what do you do when you've learned you're not the center of the universe?

OWEN: Typically a mapping session produces three things: Clarity, focus and alignment

Clarity is not just clarity about the answer, it's actually much more important. It's clarity about what are the challenges that we're trying to deal with, what are the questions we're trying to answer. Because the best solution to the wrong problem is still a bad solution. The first thing that has to come out is "What is the real challenge this community, this department, this organization has to address." If you've got clarity around that, then you can achieve focus.

You need to focus what are inevitably limited resources on the most important challenges and opportunities. When we work with executives, we find that they are very focused, but you'll find 10 senior executives all extremely focused on different agendas. Which is a nightmare.

So coming out of a mapping session, once everyone has shared their maps and come up with a common map, you've not just got the clarity, you've not just got the focus, but you've got alignment of the agendas across that team. Once a team is aligned around a very clear and focused agenda it can achieve great things. Clarity, focus and alignment get you 80 percent of the way to success. If you haven't got clarify, focus and alignment you're a 100 percent of the way to failure.

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