Corporate Tribes

Is modern business and corpoarte life so different from traditional tribal life? Can one learn from the other? Sent to me by my friend Ralph Lewis at The Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership.


The Company Savage: Life in the Corporate Jungle

Martin Page,

Cassell, London, 1972

The first thing to say is that Martin Page is not using savage as a term of abuse – he is referring to all our instincts, wherever we are, whatever we do, to act as part of a tribe. He gives many examples of the parallels between tribal life and corporate life which we ignore at our peril. Those who think that organisational life is “rational” miss out on the essentials of organisational leadership. Take “tribal spirit” – it exists. The Ashanti of Ghana had a reputation for aggression as a tribe even though as individuals they were no different from others. This tribal spirit made them one of the most warlike and successful tribes in West Africa as happens with our more successful corporations. The “tribal spirit” or organisational culture shapes individuals and what they do. If you look at many modern corporations their structures are very similar to those of tribal village life – with the Chief Executive, as in the tribe, having the most prestigious accommodation. Planned obsolescence of products has been around in some tribes for thousands of years as has their own trading stock exchanges. The AGM is similar to the ritual of appeasing the elders or tribal spirits held once a year by the tribal chiefs to account for how they have managed the tribe ( or company) and is just as meaningless with lip service being paid to shareholders as to the spirits. Succession planning in the old ICI was done by Sir Peter Allen in exactly the same way as with the Akwaaba, preliminary discussions with the tribal elders or Directors and a successor emerging out of discussions then being elected unanimously. Martin Page also draws lovely parallels between the role of the advertising agencies and the !Kuk with the Bushmen. The !Kuk don’t do much but they wine and dine and give a sympathetic ear to the Bushmen chiefs whenever they feel isolated or are available for the Chief as a safety valve for them to let off steam.

This is a brilliant book, perhaps a little cynical ( but great fun ) but the undercurrents of human interaction are all there. It is also essential reading for all those who want to understand organisations !

ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING. The one day a year on which a tribe pays lavish attention to its owners to make up for ignoring them at other times.

BWANA’S THEORY. A widespread fallacy that a man’s main motivation in work is to become rich.

PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE. An economic principle devised by the Koryak tribe of Siberia to lull potential competition in the hunting field into complacency.

TRIBAL SPIRIT. Force that makes members of a tribe appear to outsiders to be unnervingly similar to one another in their dress, demeanour, attitudes, etc.

TRIBE. A group of people who believe that together they add up to more than the sum of their individual persons, e.g. the Ashanti of Ghana, Genesco Inc. of the USA


“So a company cannot be regarded merely as a production unit, any more than

An African tribe can. Some are run exclusively for profit but an amazing number

Are not. And these are indeed to be compared with an African tribe that produces

In order to survive.”

Martin Page has a great deal to say about “contract teams” and “nomads”. Contract teams are solely composed of mercenaries – people who do the work purely for money and nomads are those who wander around from organisation to organisation getting pay increases every time. His view is that that neither are good for a successful organisation. It needs spirit and connection for success – for that extra ingredient of trust without which the tribe or company will not survive.

CONTRACT TEAM. An anthropological term for a group of men , who work together solely in the hope of making profits. Contract teams ‘ are rare both among savages and businessmen and have a poor rate of survival.

NOMADS. Rootless wanderers who have a psychological inability to settle down in one organisation and contribute wholeheartedly to its success. They enjoy movement for its own sake, and go from job to job leaving a trail of uncompleted tasks in their wake. Nomads have previously been concentrated in the more barren areas of the world, but are now proliferating in the executive ranks of business.

TABOO. A ritual prohibition used as a test of loyalty. A tribe may have a taboo against touching the chief or eating kangaroo meat. A company may have one against wearing white socks or allowing one’s hair to reach the back of one’s collar.


There are many ways in which leaders strive for power and then strive to maintain it. On gaining power a leader will often use an “absence ritual” – i.e. Going away for a short period to get those left behind to adjust to the leader’s new status. The ritual used nowadays is often a training or management development programme. On return there is always a dilemma for the new leader – how can they surround themselves with the most able subordinates but ensure that these subordinates do not usurp their power. In case this is seen as too cynical read the business pages about boardroom struggles etc. Many tribes have evolved ways of managing this dilemma. Musical chairs for example – you know you will get a chance at leaders as leadership is rotated – the Chief making promises to his or her most able subordinate that they are the chosen one. Other methods:

RAJAH’S TRAP. A device believed to be the invention of an Indian ruler who, by encouraging overspecialising in his immediate subordinates, removed and excluded potential challengers from positions from which they could make a plausible bid for power. Now found in the electronics and other technologically advanced industries

BASUTO DEMOCRACY. Illusion of `buddiness’ created by covertly dictatorial chief executives to enable them to supervise the social lives of their subordinates and nip the merest challenge to authority in the bud.

HEIR APPARENT. A title often conferred by Paramount Chiefs on their most obvious rivals, before they set about undermining and subtly discrediting them.

LUGBUR CURSE. A technique probably devised by the elders of the Lugbur tribe of Uganda to suppress overambitious subordinates, now used in business.

MUKONGA CHOP. A southern African ploy of destroying an ambitious executive by promoting him and then giving him an impossibly large workload.

NYAKYUSAN MUSICAL CHAIRS. The fairest known system of sharing out the best executive positions between the greatest number of people, without paying excessive regard to candidates’ abilities. In use in East Africa for many centuries, it now enjoys popularity in the British Civil Service and a growing number of old established companies

PARAMOUNT CHIEF’S DILEMMA. A cruel predicament that afflicts most chief executives-they can prosper only by employing the more able subordinates. But the more able subordinates they employ, the more they put at risk their own survival at the top.

SYDAMO APPOINTMENT METHOD. This is a method believed to be of Ethiopian origin. A personnel department or a selection committee may appear to pick the best man for an executive vacancy when in fact he is in no way superior to any of the other candidates. This method is often used by tribes which practise Nyakyusan Musical Chairs, q.v.

Management Consultants and Witch-Doctors

The technique of getting a foot in a client’s door by offering for a modest sum to help him with a comparatively minor problem, using the access thus obtained to spot one or more bigger ones which he may not have thought much about himself, and then selling him solutions for those for a really fat fee-this is by no means all that witch-doctors and some management consultants have in common. They also share the immense advantage, inherent to the nature of their work, that much of the time their clients have no means of telling whether their services have been effective.

Martin Page suggests that there is no real difference between consultants and witch doctors; both offer their clients a feeling of reassurance; that their ”magic” works. The higher the fee, the greater the distance they come the more powerful is their magic.

Starting from the false premise that chance does not exist and that therefore inaccurate prediction of the outcome of a particular set of circumstances merely means that the predictor has not tried hard enough, scientific management aspires eventually to offer certainty where none can exist.

WITCH-DOCTOR. Practitioner of the art of producing plausible explanations for inexplicable misfortunes. The same as Management Consultant.

Earnings, Wealth and Tax

This is a highly complicated area as our wealth and tax systems are inextricably interwoven with status and hierarchy, belong and comfort needs as well as the basic survival needs. Martin Page helps to explain what , on first sight , appears to be irrational behaviour. I.e. Throwing wealth away ( potlach or philanthropy) and why no matter how much we earn our personal spending power seems to decrease. Income tax is a form of confiscation ritual which all societies have in one way or another. Once the social dimension is brought in then spending and wealth accumulation start to make sense.

Executive Man finds that the higher his income goes, the greater the proportion that disappears. Low personal spending power despite high income, known as the horomorun paradox, must be regarded in most cases as a chronic condition..

The Law of Executive Insolvency :The law is, simply stated, that an executive tribesman is forbidden by forces more powerful than he is from keeping a grip on his own money. .

Most executives make money not so much to become rich as to meet their financial obligations to others..

`A tribe encourages its members to amass wealth through relentless individual effort, risk taking, sacrifice of leisure, enterprise and so on, only to take most of their wealth away from them as soon as they have made it.’

Although income tax functions as a revenue collector, it is at heart our form of the ritual confiscator that takes from individuals as a matter of principle. This is found in one shape or another (though rarely in such a sophisticated and institutionalised one as income tax) in almost all tribal societies.

It is a fear that a supernatural power exists-the ancient Greeks called her Nemesis-which is waiting to punish you if you become too successful. One way in which men try to escape this kind of punishment is to rid themselves of a large part of the rewards their `excessive’ success has brought them. Dr. Mauss found that the belief was common to Islamic, Black, European and Berber cultures that you must keep giving, because `otherwise Nemesis will take vengeance upon (your) excessive wealth and happiness’.

The 40-hour Home : Men like talking about their homes and seem to find it an emotional comfort that they have one. Thus they are undeniably fond and indeed proud of their homes as a concept in their minds. But an executive’s attitude towards his home as a physical entity can be ambivalent and even mildly hostile. He may prefer to spend all his waking time possible at his job. He may alternatively be so hard-pressed financially by the mortgage, rates, electricity, repair and other bills, that he spends his free time not enjoying the benefits of his home, but working extra hard to pay for them.

The number of hours a man spends at work compared with the number of hours he spends at home is a point on which many middle-class men seem so sensitive that they are driven to telling untruths about it. Many men, when they have the chance to be home, prefer to spend much of the time available golfing at their local club, or in the pub. Some even have escapes from their homes built into their homes. These are called workshops or hobbyrooms or dens, so that even during the limited time they are at home, they are not actually at home. Yet an executive will, with such unswerving predictability, spend the maximum he can raise from the moneylenders on his home that many marketing strategies are based on the phenomenon. .

Leisure must be mentioned in this context. It is frequently the case that the more successful the businessman is, the less he enjoys going away on holiday. Holidays are the joy of those whose employment is tedious., Many senior men feel that they spend too much of their working lives in planes and hotels to have any appetite left for any more travel, even though it be called leisure.

EXPENSE ACCOUNT. A method by which tribes (companies) try to ensure that their chiefs eat properly and go out and enjoy themselves from time to time, despite their compulsive habit of spending almost all their salaries on their wives and families.

MAHDI’S TECHNIQUE. A method of maximising the impact of one’s prestige symbols by pretending to disdain them-e.g. Having your chauffeur follow you in your limousine while you walk.

MAMBWE DODGE. A technique of concealing one’s true wealth from others, particularly one’s nearest and dearest, by appearing to be constantly in debt.

MANUNU. Money that is earned not to spend on necessities but on luxuries and other inessentials. A man without manunu is known as a `Nothing Man’ or `Rubbish Man’.

MICAWBERIAN FALLACY. The belief that as unhappiness results from living beyond one’s means, therefore happiness derives from living within one’s means.

MUMI. A person who uses hospitality as a form of aggression. Muninai, q.v.

MUNINAI. A contest in which each party tries to humiliate the other by inducing him to accept more hospitality than he can afford to reciprocate. Mumi, q.v.

PHILANTHROPY. The practice of seeking acclaim for giving away money which would otherwise have been confiscated by the tax man

POTLACH. A North American Indian term meaning the use of extravagance and waste of hard-earned assets in an attempt to gain prestige. e.g. the U.S. space programme, the Anglo-French Concorde programme

PROFIT MOTIVE. An excuse often used by business tribes to justify their activities when they are too ashamed to admit that their real motive is enjoyment.

TIME PAYMENTS (e.g. Hire Purchase). The method traditionally adopted by the Maya Indians of Yanacantan and adopted by white Americans to finance the acquisition of prestige.

UKUMOGA. Exuberant showing off of wealth through expensive possessions which are not to be confused with prestige symbols.

Selling is a compulsive occupation of savage origin

KAYTULUGI. Mythical location of what may be the original commercial traveller’s dirty story, dating from Neolithic times.

KULA. A Stone Age marketing exercise conducted in the SouthWestern Pacific. Complicated and daring sales operations’ are launched to meet consumer demand for entirely useless objects.

WOWOYLA. The foreplay in which salesmen engage their prospects before consummating the sales act.