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Tribal power and hope

Tribal power and hope


Dr Bob Murray considers the neurogenetic drive to be a great leader

Recently, my partner Alicia Fortinberry and I gave a number of workshops for senior leaders of one of the world’s largest professional service firms. These involved aspects of what we have lately been calling ‘relational leadership’ (RL).

RL is a new leadership style which, though akin to transformational leadership, is actually the most aligned to our fundamental neurogenetic design specs.

A leader using RL thus has a powerful edge on their more traditional colleagues. RL leaders are using the power of neurogenetics and the power of tribe.

A tribe is there to give its members a sense of belonging, safety, purpose and commonality. These give the tribe its strength, its motivation, its longevity and its resilience. In fact, they form the basis of all social cohesion.

We focused on a RL leader’s twin duties of providing their teams (and, incidentally their customers and clients) with relational support and resilience. RL is a style that creates loyalty and engagement. It encourages certain behaviours in leaders which makes followers feel supported, hopeful and valued.

As with all our talks and workshops, this one was based on our deep understanding of psychology and what we call ‘human science’ that collection of disciplines which form the basis of our understanding about all things human, particularly our motivations and personalities: the design specs of humanity.

Being a leader is rather like being a parent the drive may be innate in some people (about 24 per cent of us) but the ‘how to’ must be learned.

Studies by the Gallup organisation have shown that about 82 per cent of present-day corporate firm and political leaders are in the wrong job. Of course, it may also be that they are in the right job but using the wrong style(s) of leadership – and thus diminishing their effectiveness.

It is possible to be a great leader even if you don’t have the genetic drive to be one; and this is where relational leadership comes in.

Social construct

Fundamentally, humans are relationship forming animals and our need for social support

is all-encompassing. Our prime drive (along with those to secure food and shelter and to procreate) became to increase and deepen our network of supportive relationships.

Over time, this became more important than the other primal drives because it enabled us to acquire the food and shelter we need.

Supportive relationships also enabled us to fulfil our secondary drives for certainty, autonomy, trust and for status (our famous CATS model).

Humans will normally do whatever it takes to increase their sense of being supported.Facts and reasoning don’t persuade them to do what a leader wants them to, but the promise of additional support will.

Individualised support is one of the prime attributes of transformational leadership, which is generally recognised as being the most effective leadership style. It is, un- surprisingly, also the one that humans are genetically most prone to accept.

The promise of support, in whatever ways individuals feel that they need it, will draw to a leader not only a loyal and engaged team, but also client and customer loyalty – since the genetic need for relational support is the same.


Relational support also gives a client and a team member something else that’s vital to their wellbeing: hope. Indeed, hope may be generally impossible without it.

Hope is also one of the keys to resilience, but it’s complicated. Like resilience, hope is a mixture of genetic predisposition, neural biochemistry, historical exposure to stressors and present circumstances and context.

A leader can’t do much about the first three of these, but can greatly influence the last two. And that influence can, to a large extent, cancel out the ill-effects of biology and history. But how?

There are several things an RL leader can do to foster hope:

Set achievable and meaningful goals - Nothing destroys the sense of hope in a team quite so fast as goals (whether financial or other) which are perceived as unachievable. A leader must be prepared to show how goals can be met, just setting a target or goal is not enough. The goal must be meaningful to the team member it is set for. Meaningful means not for the firm or the business, but for the follower.

Have a clear vision – A clear vision for the team/firm and be able to articulate how it is achievable.

Give praise and recognition – Particularly for the ‘how’ of what people have done: for the effort, the ingenuity, the creativity and even when the goal itself is not achieved. By doing so, success is more likely in the future.

Celebrate with praise and recognition - Even minor individual and team goal successes. Hope largely springs from the reward system of the brain. The more reward, the more hope; the more hope, the more individual and joint effort; the more effort, the more success.

These four actions create a context of hope. For a professional service firm, it’s not that much different with clients.

Someone who’s a good team leader can also create a context of hope for clients. With hope comes loyalty, and with loyalty comes business.

If you have hope, you’re on the way to resilience. Another aspect of resilience which good leaders bring to their teams or firms relates to the sense of tribe.

When I lived with hunter-gatherers, I noticed that what separated them from those who work in today’s Western world was the enjoyment they got from their work.

The men, for example, went on the hunt despite its inherent dangers because they enjoyed the process. It was a socialising and engaging pastime.

It didn’t matter that much if they didn’t catch anything. Over 70 per cent of the protein that the band lived on came from the gathering activities of the women and children – especially the children whose job it was to reach into the cracks and crevices in the rocks with their small hands and pull out lizards and other small animals (somehow, they always knew when there were snakes lurking there).

The women, too, enjoyed socialising, singing and playing with the children when they were out gathering. Work was, for the most part, less like drudgery and more like fun.

A relational leader can’t always give their team ‘fun’ things to do, but can make work a socialising and engaging experience; they can make work as communal and as interesting as possible.

Having interesting work is a prime factor in resilience; and work needs to be a communal experience because an employee’s resilience can normally only come, as research indicates, from being part of a mutually supportive team. That’s the essence of ‘tribe’.

There are exceptions, of course: those individuals (maybe 7 per cent of us) that have a high degree of natural resilience in their genome can work alone and be perfectly resilient.

Our experience in helping to form and manage high performance teams, as well as recent research, shows that the defining feature of a high-performance team is that its members like and respect each other.

And they enjoy the process of working together no matter what the task; and socialising with each other during breaks and downtimes.

What makes work an engaging enterprise for humans is, at least in part, the opportunity to relate. It follows that the best leader is one who understands the essence of forming, maintaining and encouraging relational support. In other words, relational leadership

Dr Bob Murray is a behavioural psychologist with an interest in legal and professional services.

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