Living and Leading in a Tribal Way

We live in a country ‘at war with itself’ writes war correspondent Sebastian Junger in  Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.Unknown

The battle lines are everywhere—political gridlock and the most divisive presidential campaign in modern times, the widening wealth gap, worsening race relations, irresolvable conflicts over LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, to name a few.

The alarming increase of PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) among vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is for Junger the most disturbing symptom of our cultural conflicts.   Some of the PTSD increase is among vets who were never in combat. The reason, he writes, is not the trauma of battle but the difficulty of returning home where there is very little camaraderie.

PTSD, according to studies he cites, is not necessarily caused by war, but the lack of belonging when they leave the military.   In combat platoons close-knit groups of soldiers are always together looking out for one another, willing to put themselves in harm’s way and even die for one another if necessary.

It’s when the vets return home feeling alone, with few job opportunities and not much to live for that the trauma begins.

‘Humans don’t mind hardship,’ he writes, ‘in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.   Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.’  

While tribalism is often used to describe people who—like gang members, are more loyal to their own closed group than their neighbors, friends or even family.

For Junger, a tribe is an open family, a safe place of belonging.

To act in a ‘tribal way’, he says, ‘simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community—be that your neighborhood, your workplace, or your entire country.’

The ultimate test of tribe he suggests is – ‘who are you willing to die for?’ –something he knows that seldom if ever most of us will be forced to consider.   Short of that however, Junger describes a tribal community in any setting as –

‘a group of people you would help feed and help defend’

Not all families are tribes in this sense, but they can be and many are.   And not all churches are communities of hope, but they too can be and many are.   The workplace is seldom a tribal community.   The Wall Street Journal reports that less than half of people are satisfied with their jobs.   Does it have to be that way?

What role or responsibility do leaders have to lead in a ‘tribal way’ so that they and their followers defer self-interest for the collective good?

Near the end of the book Yunger tells of a business man who gave up his salary rather than lay off workers when his company experienced a money-losing year.   The man, he writes, “felt that true leadership—the kind that lives depend on—may require powerful people to put themselves last.”

Junger’s point is that whether alone or in a crowd, all of us need healthy tribal relationships.   Without it anyone may spiral down into trauma.

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4 Responses to Living and Leading in a Tribal Way

  1. Makes me ask some serious questions about our family, our church, and our shelter. Have I/We participate in each of these key areas of our lives and leadership in ways that contribute to and encourage tribalism or have I/We acquiesced to the dominant culture making people feel less family, unnecessary, unwelcomed even unwanted.
    Where have I/We fallen short? How could I/We be more welcoming? How could I/We make everyone — Leadership, Staff, Members, Guests, Strangers… feel more necessary.

  2. Brian Weigelt says:

    Great post! Junger definitely has something here. I can validate his theory from my experiences serving in combat with Marines. Tribes need stories, a mythology, a spirituality, objective standards by which individuals are bound together. Secularism discounts these components of “boundedness” as merely tools to manipulate individuals. While they certainly can be manipulative, they serve an incredibly important function of creating community. Radical secularism not only attacks religion, but the sociological foundations that make religion valuable from a utilitarian perspective–not to mention the eternal value for those of us who believe. Rather than simply attacking secularism, the church should do all it can to emphasize how differently we see the world–there are hurting people who want to belong to a tribe. We had better make sure our tribe is ready to receive them.

  3. Jesse Middendorf says:

    Excellent post! The New Testament concept of “koinonia” comes immediately to mind. Somehow, the church must be a demonstration of that healing kind of mutual concern. I am very impressed by the book you reference. Look king forward to reading it.

  4. Susan Grube says:

    So very true I think.

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