How Do Thought Leaders Build Their Tribe?

Who Do You Stand For? Who Do You Stand With?

Whether you are aspiring to become a thought leader or scaling your thought leadership this year, the fundamental questions you have to ask yourself are who do I stand for? Who do I stand with? Who is my tribe?

Thought leadership is not a self-aggrandizement exercise (meaning it’s not all about you); it is about moving change forward. As thought leaders, we take a stand for a group of people who will most benefit by the change we are working to bring about. We often serve the important role of spokesperson for that group of people, many of whom can not or do not speak on their own behalf.

In addition to those we stand for, our tribe also includes those other change agents and thought leaders who are working on the same issue and/or moving forward the same change. These individuals might be in your company, community, industry or working independently to build towards the same future that you are. As we support their efforts, we can also ask them to support ours.

Let me say that differently — we must support their efforts before we ask them to support ours.

If You Don’t Stand With Them In Good Times, They Won’t Be With You In Bad

One great example of this principle in action was Carly Fiorina when she was pushed out as CEO of HP. Throughout the years of Carly’s tenure as CEO, I was frequently frustrated by her unwillingness to stand with the women’s community in Silicon Valley. She never attended any events, accepted no invitations to speak, never spoke out on women’s issues and was completely unknown personally to those in the community who were her natural allies. She obviously never realized that we were her tribe. I remember receiving a call from the press when Carly was under attack by her board for the failed Compaq merger asking why no one was taking her side. As I pointed out to the journalist, if you don’t build allies and take a stand for and with your community, why would they be willing to stand with or for you when you are in need? (And then there’s the matter of whether she deserved to be fired or not, which also may be argued is why no one stood with her.)

Get Your Tribe On Your Side Early…Or Others May Win Their Endorsement

Another great learning experience for me occurred in 2004-2005 when I spent a year working on a political campaign for a friend and former professor of mine who was running for Governor of California. My friend was then State Controller of California, yet he was not a long-time politician – having had an earlier career in the technology industry. When he threw his hat in the ring for the Governorship, there was already another candidate in the race, a long-time politician who was the State Treasurer.

We quickly learned that we were facing a formidable opponent, not because his credentials were more substantive or his war chest larger but because he had, over many years, lined up a number of the same constituents (labor unions, community groups, newspapers, elected officials) that we were targeting for support. As a result, my candidate’s tribe included only longtime friends, a few community groups that he had been wooing for many years and the tech community where he had worked – and he lost the primary by a wide margin.

Wooing Your Tribe Takes Time and Patience

My lessons from this experience were that knowing who you stand for and with is a critical component for effectively implementing any major change (running for office or getting any project completed) and wooing that tribe is the work. That work can take time, patience and a willingness to look far enough down the road that we can see who we (will) need by our side. It requires that we take a stand for their issues so they will take a stand for ours. It requires rolling up our sleeves and building trust over time so that they see us as an ally.

What Can You Do Today?

As a budding or experienced thought leader, I invite yourself to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What community, organization, movement, culture, nation, or other constituency do you consider yourself to be part of and/or connected with? Who is your tribe?
  • With whom do you share a common past?
  • With whom do you hope to share a common future?
  • How can you join them in action this year motivated by shared values?
  • How will you communicate, move or not move, engage or not engage, get them to act or not?*


*With thanks to Marshall Ganz of the Kennedy School at Harvard for these thought provoking questions.


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