Pitfalls of tribal leadership
Recent studies have reported that people tend to physically ``see” members of their own ethnicity better than they do members of other ethnic groups. In other words, white people physically ``see” other whites better that they do Asians and blacks. The same goes for every other ethnic group.
What I just described is just one of the countless prejudices that are ingrained in our biological and cultural makeup that have allowed us to survive as a species, by sticking together with those who are most like us. This means that we are inherently tribal: a band of humans related by blood, regional, or cultural ties that form around a (usually) strong alpha male leader.
The tribal system worked well for us throughout human history. In fact, the Dangun creation story probably refers to a competition between the Tiger and Bear tribes that ended with the latter’s victory and emergence of Dangun as the premier leader of the victorious tribe. We also know that Silla originally began as the coming together of six separate tribes.
This is also not unique to Korea. Tribalism has been a successful societal model for every people across the world throughout history. But what worked well before doesn’t mean it works well today.
We have seen this in a big way in the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East. While the protests are nominally about inequality, unfairness, and repression, tribalism lays at the heart of this conflict. Libya recently emerged under the brutal dictatorship Colonel Muammar Gadhafi ― of the Gadhafi tribe ― in which the majority of Libyans depend on their tribal connection in order to obtain their rights, and for protection, and even in order to find a job, particularly in state agencies. In Syria ― currently undergoing a bloody upheaval ― the ruling Assad family are members of the minority Alawite sect and belong to the Kalbiyya tribe.
We also see that, in such tribal societies, the head of the tribe wields an enormous influence and demands strong loyalty from members of the same tribe, no matter what the consequences might be for the nation as a whole.
You don’t have to look to the Middle East to find tribalism alive and well. Terms such as ``Lee Kun-heeism” and every day sectarian politics are all vestiges of tribalism.
But today's Japan provides a starker example. A recent article in The Economist titled, ``Tribal Japan,” starkly illustrates how tribalism within Olympus led to a 13-year fraud in which the company hid a $1.1 Billion loss. When asked who he worked for, an executive supposedly replied, ``I work for Mr. Kikukawa (the chairman). I’m loyal to Mr. Kikukawa,” and not the company. In short, the executive’s ultimate loyalty lay with the leader, not the wellbeing of the company.
The real problem is when that such loyalty to a leader rises out of a sense of tribalism that trumps all other considerations. That’s when the system becomes so incestuous that loyalty becomes cronyism that elevates people based on ``tribal” affinity and not ability. As we can see from Libya to Olympus, this will lead to an implosion of the greater community and suffering of innocent bystanders.
Some may point to this and criticize the whole concept of loyalty to your leader. But I disagree. The answer is not to rail against loyalty. I actually believe that loyalty to your leadership is a virtue, one of the glues that keep our societies and culture together. However, loyalty becomes a problem when it’s singularly tied to a person or group rather than an organization or principle. Then it becomes a cult of personality around the tribal leader.
The only vaccine against loyalty devolving into a tribal cult is a strong culture of values that will hold certain principles sacred enough so that no person ― however great and illustrious ― can rise above them. True, all organizations small and large pay lip service to core values that highlight fairness, equality, integrity and so on. But as we saw in the 2008 financial meltdown, lip service does not equate to actual behavior on the ground, especially by an elite group of bankers who unscrupulously, and sometimes illegally, engaged in unethical behaviors to make money for their ``tribe.”
This is why political leaders and corporations have to take seriously governance devices such as Ombudsman and Whistleblower Protection. You need to empower those within the tribe who are willing to place the larger good above the shortsighted need of the tribe. Only then will you create an ecosystem of fairness, inclusion, and transparency that will allow success and prosperity to be self-sustaining. Otherwise, you are courting an inevitable fall.
But guarding against tribalism is difficult because it is the default societal state for human beings. So is leadership based on a strong personality. These phenomena will always be with us because they are a biological imperative. It’s an easy trap to fall into.
However, the mark of a mature society is to create a legal, economic, and cultural system where human instincts do not trump human intelligence and values. It’s about protecting ourselves against our baser nature.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jasonlim2000.