Tribal Identities – Strengths & Weaknesses

The Art of War has had considerable influence over military strategy internationally.

The Chinese conflict following World War II between the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) and the communists for example. Nationalist officers led by Chiang Kai-shek looked to Western military tactics for guidance, and believed the old classic The Art of War was out of date or irrelevant, revolutionary communist Mao Zedong was attracted to ancient Chinese literature from an early age including The Art of War. Mao forged an army out of impoverished peasants through consistent moral discipline, training and chance for advancement in the ranks. This gained Mao their unwavering loyalty from his men and women.Also Mao had the knack of getting those he defeated to join him – and many of the captured officers and men immediately joined the Red Army.

Master Sun (Sun Tzu) approved of this as he instructed in Chapter 2: “Treat the captives well, and care for them.” Mao followed Master Sun’s words to the letter and  changed tactics and mentioned the art of deception reiterated in nearly every chapter of The Art of War.

When Mao wrote slogans, he paraphrased Master Sun. Take for example his slogan read, “When the enemy halts, we harass!” Master Sun would agree, he says in Chapter 6: “When the enemy is at ease, be able to weary him; when well fed, to starve him; when at rest, to make him move.”

Today if we look at Chinese culture and society they are purpose driven and have longer term objectives alongside the focus on finding creative solutions in dealing with both internal and external issues of their nation. They employ The Art of War especially in diplomacy and also through military strategy – and in business dealings.

The Chinese recognise is that we are all tribal people with  our individual and group needs – regardless who we are or who that tribe based on a geographical area, racial group, religion or whatever is. In classical anthropology, a tribe is a social group of human beings. Tribes are forms of kinship between people. 

Weak tribes produce low performance and have unhealthy characteristics that can serve as obstacles to their ability to meet their goals and achieve success.

These characteristics include:

  1. Narrow Thinking: This avoids looking outside themselves for best ideas, practices and approaches. People within such cultures believe they have all the answers and in this type of inward thinking that prevents their tribe or group from making necessary cultural changes.
  2. They Resist Change: Especially when suddenly confronted with a rapidly changing environment they focus on maintaining the status quo, avoiding risk, holding on to what they think will work for them, and not making mistakes. The leadership of such tribes allows such thinking to spread and paralyze their group rather than focus on innovation and success.
  3. Political Environment: Tribes can be very politically charged groups. Their focus is on issues and problems must only get resolved within their own lines of power. Vocal support or opposition, personal lobbying, and the formation of coalitions interested in a particular outcome stifles any movement towards changing this environment. This produces low performance because it sacrifices what is best for the organisation for the particular desire/self-interest of particular players.
  4. Unhealthy Practices: Evident when the culture promotes a long-time member to leadership who maybe hard-working but lacks leadership skills, vision, and the ability to think strategically. This type of leadership hinders the ability to develop a long-term vision, build new competencies, and generate new strategies.

Strong tribes have higher levels of performance as they are result oriented and have an environment where there is constructive pressure to perform. In a high-performance culture, there are a number of healthy characteristics that improve organizational performance.

These characteristics include:

  1. Cultural Tools: Think of ceremonies, symbols, language, behavioral rules, and policies. Strong tribes use these tools to produce better performance from ordinary people within their group and use ceremonies and symbols to emphasize what their tribe values. Language is used in slogans and policies help solidify the primary values and provide a shared understanding amongst the tribe.
  2. Member Focused: Tribes with strong cultures display their concern for their members by treating them with dignity and respect, giving them the freedom to act as individuals to excel and contribute. Tribal heads are also held accountable for the growth and development of members. There are clear lines of communication and engagement between the diffenet levels of the tribe.
  3. Results Focus: High-performance tribes invest more time and resources to ensure that members who excel and achieve for the group are identified and rewarded. Controls are put in place to collect, analyze, and interpret members performance. Measures of success are used to select and reward members who perform outstandingly.
  4. Emphasis on Excellence: The atmosphere produces constructive pressure to be the best. The tribal heirachy pursues practices and policies, and invests necessary resources to inspire people to do their best.


  1. Hunter-gatherer bands that are generally egalitarian.
  2. Tribal societies with some limited instances of social rank and prestige.
  3. Stratified tribal societies led by chieftains (Chiefdom).
  4. Civilizations, with complex social hierarchies and organized, institutional governments.

From this we can also look at ‘Tribalism’:

Tribalism is part of human evolution. Humans are social animals and ill-equipped to live on their own. Tribalism and social bonding helps to keep individuals committed to the group. That keeps individuals from wandering off or joining other groups. It also leads to bullying when a tribal member is unwilling to conform to the politics of the collective group. 

We need to acknowledge not just our own group – but other groups and how collectively we all have the right to live in peace within our own group and also not be harmed by other groups.

Within all tribes there is what is called tribal knowledge which is information or knowledge that is known within a tribe but often unknown outside of it – this can be anything from how to grow crops to how to fight wars. From a business perspective, “Tribal Knowledge or know-how is the collective wisdom of the organisation. It is the sum of all the knowledge and capabilities of all the people within that organisation.”

In looking at what binds the members of a tribe together we can then promote positive tribalism for the sake of that tribes collective tribal identity as opposed to negative tribalism that threatens to give rise to sectarianism, terrorism, violence and turbulence within that tribe.  

Belonging within a tribe we feel appreciated, respected and cared for as a member of a group of close people. These tribal groups may comprise of family, friends, colleagues, the sports team, workers, the congregation or a troop of soldiers. When we belong in these groups, we share values, rituals and attitudes and we experience feelings of warmth and welcome, and our lives are enriched. 

Master Sun in The Art of War mentioned how one tribe can win against another tribe in war and how the weakness of that tribe can be used against it. When we look to our opponents whoever they are – we seek to win over them at their detriment, Master Sun explained that we should ‘take them intact’ to bring them along with us on a journey – if they so choose and also to understand just because another tribe may look weak – they may actually be completely the opposite.

The tribe can live together within itself in harmony, with civility, respect and empathy or choose to live in animosity and conflict with itself or with other tribes. This is why when we look at the ‘weak tribes’ above we can see the areas where that tribe can break apart if its already not breaking apart. Our role should be not to attack other tribes but rather to help them become stronger and more confident and where we wish to fight we should look within our own tribal identities and face our own weaknesses and fears.

This is what The Art of War teaches – not so much as fighting others but looking within to fight your own weaknesses.

Mohammed Abbasi

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