FOCUS ON LEADERSHIP
TRIBES HAVE LOTS TO TEACH ABOUT COURAGE AND THE VALUE OF COMMUNITY.
BY KATE PAVAO
o 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.
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
c hild 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
For a corporate tribe exercise, visit Profit
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KATE PAVAO is a freelance writer based in California.
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