The Tribes We Create

Seth Godin talks a lot about tribes.  And I’m a member of many tribes, some literal, but many figurative.  I’ve also helped create them in a corporate environment and understand what it takes to find, reinforce, and change cultural values.

When you play a pivotal role in a tribe, your actions dictate where the tribe goes.  Sometimes, that role is obvious: CEO, COO, President, or any number of roles we call ‘leadership’.  But sometimes that role is less obvious.  Sometimes, there’s a quiet keeper of the tribe’s culture – the person with unstated, but known, influence over others.  And I’ve played that role many times.  It’s this person that softly pushes, that plants and waters the seeds until they bloom, so others can reap it.  It takes a team to make a tribe successful.  It can’t just be one, because manufactured tribes focused on individuals ultimately fail.

To truly be a tribe, members must come together, to decide as one unit on shared values.  It’s less about individuals and more about the values.  Subgroups can exist in tribes – they’re often better for it – but they MUST, absolutely must, roll back up to the main tribe in one way or another.

Here’s what we don’t talk about – when values shift.  When we ourselves create change not necessarily for the better of all, but the better of some.  I’ve seen this happen a lot in companies.  There’s a cosmic shift with a particular hire, or entry into a new market, or what have you.  There’s a change when we become too distracted, too focused on something else, that we let one of our values fall and fade away quietly.  We only notice when the bodies fall and the attrition has become too deep to deny the problem.  This happens a lot in companies and its effects are not only profound, but chilling.

Tribes fall apart when the key values vanish.  People lose interest, they drift to the walls until they exit completely, and something big is lost.  Members of the tribe who valued that person also stand back, until enough leave, that they too walk out the door.

You can manufacture a tribe, but it will only last so long if it’s not authentic.  Esperanto is a manufactured language and, while there are pockets of speakers, it’s not a language that’s taken off as others have hoped.  Sign English is a manufactured language.  Its signers, when interacting with others, eventually learn to code switch into Pidgin Sign Language in order to fit the main tribe of Deaf signers.  Language is a driver of culture.

Cults are manufactured tribes.  We read about them a lot and they rarely last generations – they’re simply not sustainable long term.

Tableau is a tribe of sorts.  Many of us are odd analysts who have found our way to Tableau because we wanted something easier.  We believed there had to be a better way.  And, for those of us in the room, many of us found it in Tableau.  Pick a reason: Tableau answers the pain point.

We also find people like us.  Just look at what people say about the Tableau Conference.  It’s refreshing to find people who value what we value.  We may not all look alike (I can only hope not), we may not all share the same language, but the passion to see and understand can be universal.

Sometimes, we even make the connection of a lifetime.  I have, a few times, and it’s been because of Tableau.

But, here’s where I struggle.  Tableau started as a tool for the everyday analyst, the person entrenched in reports, and hoping to escape the mired trap of monkey work.  No, surely, there’s a home for creativity, for truly questioning what the data says, and what we can find.  And the community supported this, it gave it license and a home, and camaraderie.  It gave it a means to talk.

I am not a social person.  For years, I hid from social media.  There’s a level of privacy I will forever covet and it’s one I’ve progressively had to undress as society has turned towards a more open – and communal – view of life.  I fought this for years, despite the (very sage) advice of my mentors to not hide.  It will never feel natural to me, I’ve come to terms with this, but here I am.  And, for the most part, I’m better for it.  I NEVER could have met the people I have, nor had the opportunities I have, by hiding.

But, by joining this tribe, I’ve joined its values.  And its values including sharing.  And openness of others, regardless of where you came.  And the freedom to play.

After the World Trade Center attack in the United States, there were billboards, bumper stickers, and signs everywhere.  And I struggled to understand what they were trying to tell me: “Untied we stand.”  Why ‘untied’?  I was mad and couldn’t figure it out until someone pointed out my dyslexia – ‘United’ not untied.  But, maybe we were untied.  I worked in retail at the time and many of my customers were afraid to come purchase fabric due to their backgrounds and choice of attire.  Others were terrified to use the languages in which they were most comfortable.  My friends from other places had to justify their background more or go out of their way to make it less noticeable.  When my friends, and even myself, had our lives threatened for the way we looked, the languages we used, the things we might or might not have believed, then what else was I to think?  If we can’t come together under a set of shared values, then what are we?

We choose our tribes every day.  We pick our values with the things we say, the decisions we make, and the things we espouse.  We choose our heroes, our stories, and the myths that will outlast us.  We look for ways to leave a meaningful mark with people that matter to us.  In our own small corner of the world, we hope to leave an impression.  And, ideally, tribes make us better.  They give us support, boundaries, and goalposts in life.  But, they also evolve and make room as the world around them changes.  We all contribute and shape the tribe, even if we say nothing.  Our presence lends support to those who lead, thus leaving our own quiet mark.  Growth requires change, change requires reflection, and reflection means taking an honest look at the delta between who we are and where we aspire to be.

I joined this tribe looking for a place to belong.  I found it.  Time has progressed, the sands have shifted a bit, and I’m reflecting.  I offer no answers, only a question: What tribe are you creating?


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