Tribal Leadership Techniques Through the Eyes of an Agilist

Content By agilealliance .org

After spending 15 years leading Agile teams around the world, I spent close to a year in the heart of the Amazon jungle in two of the most remote indigenous reserves in Brazil visiting and living with indigenous tribes. I observed tribal rituals and leadership practices through the eyes of my experience in agility. I wish to share some of those insights with the Agile community.

1.      Introduction

During the year I spent on a social project with indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, I was inspired by their peculiar leadership practices. Nightly circle gathering rounds of discussions, regular visits to neighboring villages with ritualized discussions as well as many intriguing daily practices.

When I came back to Europe, I had to quickly return to a much different reality, going back to leading Agile teams on a complex project. The project was quickly growing. In a little over a year, I was in charge of leading 10 feature teams, with the challenge of balancing autonomy and alignment. I decided to experiment preserving the simplicity of XP by implementing some of the practices I had seen during my year in the rainforest. This report is an attempt at summarizing three years of experiments.

My stay within indigenous tribes was divided in two major indigenous reserves. The first one, close to the Rio Negro where I was invited by two NGOs (ISA Instituto Socioambiental, and CCYP Comissão Pró-Yanomami). The first one aimed at installing a radio relay at a summit close to the highest mountain of Brazil (Pico da Neblina) in the middle of the Yanomami Reserve [Leite], with 6 indigenous Sherpas carrying equipment and 2 anthropologists. The second one aimed at installing and maintaining HF antennas and radio stations in 11 remote villages in the Yanomami reserve, 10 days canoe upstream of the Rio Marauia, alone with a Shaman and an indigenous “interpreter” speaking rudiments of Brazilian Portuguese. The second part of my stay was upstream of an affluent river of the Rio Solimoes, which is itself the main tributary to the Amazon River. I followed my wife on a mission for the Univaja [Univaja] to help document traditional agricultural processes of Marubo tribes, two weeks by motorboat upstream of Rio Curuça. I took part in the project helping document rituals and traditional processes in the areas of fishing and hunting involving mostly men.

Figure 1. Yanomami Indigenous Territory              

Figure 2. Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory

These two regions are among the most preserved indigenous areas in Brazil. According to Fabricio Amorim from Fundação Nacional do Índio [Wikipedia], the region contains “the greatest concentration of isolated groups in the Amazon and the world”. Although we have visited many different ethnic groups during our stay, we spent most of our time with the Yanomami and the Marubo. Coming from far away regions, they have different cultures.

2.      Back to Reality: From the Jungle to the Office

By October 2017, our stay was over; we knew we had to come back. Our project was finished and staying more would cost too much to the community who was supplying food and care to our family. We were invited by the son of the Tuxaua (local leader), as he wanted to document the knowledge of his culture when it was still lively. Meeting with others communities closer to civilization, he knew the damage it could do to it, attracting youth outside of the forest and leaving villages deprived of their youth. Involving the youth to share and document their community’s knowledge helped them realize how profound and interesting it is. Our recurrent questions and astonishment at many basic parts of their life (at least for them) made us look silly, and—we hope—contributed to valorize their fantastic knowledge.

The way back was hard. Our family (my wife, myself, and our two daughters 4, and 7 years old) shared the space of a small wooden canoe with a Marubo family of 6. We went downstream the Curuça River for two weeks, stopping only at night, sleeping on the banks of the river, hanging our hammocks close together around a small campfire. Our friends caught fish and hunted along the way, stopping at the smell of game. Food was scarce and the meat spoiled quickly making us suffer long lasting stomach problems. Due to extreme humidity and heat, I suffered from a foot infection that quickly rendered me unable to walk. Thanks to the oldest woman sharing our canoe, I recovered after a few days, but soon—in the middle of the night—the boat capsized, hurting the riverbank sideways. There was still one week of travel to come back home.

A month later I was back to my home country, France. My profession was not anthropology. My experience was of almost 15 years of leading large tech / digital teams. Before I could realize what was happening, I met a former colleague that had become the group’s CTO. He knew what I had achieved at the Brazilian Subsidiary [Belbéoc’h], and offered that I take over a strategic project for developing the digital publication platform for the group, a project that was famous in the company for having failed three times, over a period of 10 years. I had not yet reconnected with my own culture and was struggling with the bureaucracy needed to connect the family back to the French system. After a year in the middle of the forest with no money, no stores, no communication whatsoever, I was left in a state of mental distress, feeling a profound loss of meaning and isolation. I believe this is the reason I jumped on the opportunity. To me it was almost like coming back to the Amazon River. I would experiment managing the project and the team the way I learned from the Yanomami and the Marubo.

3.      Indigenous Tribe Organizations

With the advent of Agile, small team sizes have been preeminent in software development organizations. The now famous “two-pizza-team”, coined by Amazon, has brought it into common tech culture. There is less agreement when we speak on larger scale organizations. Although the Spotify Model has been adopted or mimicked, others have favored a more structured approach with the SAFe framework.

More recently interest has grown on multiple Agile teams’ organization and collaboration, notably with the book, Team Topologies [Skelton], and the growing popularity of dynamic governance frameworks such as Sociocracy or Holacracy, and its growing adoption within the Agile community. (See for example the Bossa model from Jutta Eckstein [Bossa]). These higher-scale team structures share in common some principles; they try to align many smaller (pizza teams) into a common objective, while preserving as much as possible their autonomy. Speaking ity for important decision-making comes directly from the tribe through some of its representative members. The Yanomami call them the “Pata”, which translates into “big guys”. Where “big” is a mix of “old” and “great / important”.

The leader deliberates the decision with the “Pata”. Once the decision has been approved by the council, the leader has full authority over its execution. At this moment only he becomes an “executive” leader.

How does it relate to Agile? I had the opportunity to explore this kind of decision-making process to manage important decisions for our global team. The team I managed grew rapidly from 20 to about 120 members in three years, partly from external hiring, partly with the integration of new products and their teams. Maintaining cohesion was very important if we wanted to preserve our initial culture and practices.

We decided to convene a “circle” each time we had a common standard to discuss or a common challenge to solve. We trained ourselves on consent decision making from the Sociocracy movement. Our team is continuing to “call the council” when needed, about twice a month in the past two years. This has resulted in lightweight governance and a deeper connection between each tech lead and PO who participates in these gatherings. My role and the role of each team leader is then to communicate and execute the decisions taken by the group.

5.4       The Kawa Amou, the daily meeting of the Yanomami

During my stay with Yanomami, I witnessed a strange ritual that happened at dusk. To better describe this ritual, it is important to understand the setting of a Yanomami village. A Shabono is a circle-shaped village home for a handful to a few dozen families. Each family has its own space, around a campfire. The construction is built around a large cleared clay court. Yanomami participate collectively in the construction of the Shabono, but each family is responsible for the maintenance of their space.

In the tropical rainforest, dusk comes quickly around 6p.m. Sounds of the forest are still loud, and most families are back at their home space inside the Shabono. Yanomami are very independent and this is probably the perfect moment to get the presence of most people.

At this moment, when obscurity starts to be deep enough so that it gets hard to distinguish even neighbors, and when people are busy rekindling fires, the leader comes out at the center of the village.

A strong voice shouts so that it can be heard by everyone in the Shabono. It tries to overcome the thick air of the rainforest, blend of bird songs, low voice discussions. In the dark, the speaker looks like a figure of ancient Greece. I was asking myself: what is he really doing? It looks like no one is really looking at him, busy preparing dinner, resting in their hammock and chatting with neighbors. Then a strong voice came shouting, like a reply from somewhere in the circle-village. I could not tell exactly the origin of the voice, probably due to the moist air that deformed sounds. A moment later, a second voice came from another point in the circle, as if it were responding to the first. Then after some time the strong chanting voice started over from the middle of the circle. I could observe this ritual many times in different villages far away from each other. A Shaman told me it was called “Kawa Amo”. Its purpose was to discuss and align families around some common goals, as well as resolve potential conflicts before they grew too much and became serious.

What struck me was the way voices seemed to “respond” to the leader in a very direct manner. Responding in such a way to a leader—especially while speaking in public, in front of his own team—could be judged at least ill-mannered or clearly rude to someone from our culture. At first, I thought that the leader was not so well respected in this village. But when I saw the same pattern repeated in many different places, I felt that this was something else. Something cultural.

The leader would speak up with a strong “motivational voice”, summarizing what was done during the day and what was planned for the next, interrupted by the voices of people’s consent, remarks or sometimes disagreement. Then, sometimes, if a latent conflict was perceived or reported during the day, the leader would give feedback about the bad behavior and urge the proponents to quickly resolve their issue before it would become serious and impact the whole tribe. Often people would react or deny strongly, but thanks to peer pressure, the conflict will often fade quickly. This is as well an opportunity for tribe members to understand the risks of misbehaving.

If we compare it to known Agile practices, Kawa Amo looks like an interesting blend of an Agile stand-up meeting and “radical-candor” feedbacks. I have taken inspiration from the Kawa-Amou to our daily inter-team Standup. The ritual started when we had to all work remotely due to the Covid restrictions. Instead of having a single team representative, everybody is welcome and there are often around 30 people connected. Like the Yanomami, we do it with voices only. The product manager shares the general Kanban and makes a quick round of Epics in progress. After that, we take the opportunity to speak up for any important matter. Latent issues, generally regarding quality or communication issues are brought up in a friendly but explicit matter.

6.      The Community Level

Communities are what resemble most a village; they consist from a handful to a dozen of common houses distant from a few minutes walk to about an hour. They have close ties, share frequent invites, have family links or strong friendly ties, and work together from time to time (hunting group of animals, sharing meat when they have too much). When social distance is greater, people meet once a week to once a month.

6.1       The Frog’s bite: Passage rituals, belonging to a team

Physical rituals are also used by indigenous as a form of “passage” from being a child to becoming a man or a woman. Those passage rituals are done in front of the Shaman and other tribe members to testify. This is a strong, visible way to recognize the belonging to a tribe.

Once the Shaman of the tribe where I was residing, an old respected leader, invited me to participate in an important ritual. Out of curiosity, but without much possibility to understand what was really going to happen, I accepted. I followed six adolescents to a small stream where the Shaman had attached a living frog on two sticks with small lianas. He took a small incandescent stick and pressed it against my skin four times. Then, he scraped the back of the frog with a small wooden stick, collecting a white gooey liquid. He applied the venom carefully over the burn marks on my skin. After a few seconds I immediately felt an intense burning sensation from everywhere inside my body. I was helplessly passing away. After some time, I opened my eyes and found myself sitting in the middle of the stream supported by two indigenous throwing water at my head with a big smile on their face. I had become one of them. Although I was still feeling lost and dizzy, I felt a profound emotion of pride and belonging shared with the others that shared the ritual.

What does it have to do with Agile? Despite the distance to our common business environment, I believe we can use some insights from these passage rituals. On the teams I managed during the past ten years, I have started a collaborative recruiting process where I joined a few of the most experienced team members to define how we would select the new members entering the team. Year after year, our recruitment process improved to become highly popular, influencing HR in the company and many other teams. The test and interviews are designed and passed by team members themselves and never outsourced. As well, we don’t make any difference for the kind of contract or the position; everyone entering the team should go through it. The test may not be perfect, and of course, its content differs according to the position, but it is known to be very selective. Passing it is a motive for pride for the new team member and a great recognition by the rest of the team as well as from people outside the team.

6.2       The Shaman, guardian of the tribe’s culture

If you spend some time in a native tribe—wherever it may be: Asia, Australia, Africa, or South America—you will quickly notice that leadership is not embodied by the “leader” only. An important figure, the Shaman, shares the leadership of the tribe.

Looking from their main activities, Shamans look both like a doctor and a priest. They spend part of their time praying to attract good spirits and repelling dark ones to help their tribe get away from diseases and misfortune. When somebody from the tribe is severely sick, the Shaman can spend days chanting by the sufferer’s side, until he manages to extract the spirits that have entered his body. He is also the leader of the important ceremonies that rhythms the life of the tribe. He guides the tribe for the preparation of the celebration and leads the ritual with mastery.

Shamans act as the main protectors of the culture and traditions of their tribe. They are the living memory of the history, beliefs and traditions of the tribe. I have been dazzled by the incredible memory they can develop. During one ritual with the Marubo, the Shaman counted legends of their tribe during the whole night. Shaman apprentices and the rest of the tribe repeated in unison while dancing in circles around the common house. This is a way Shamans pass the tribe’s history and traditions to new generations

While the “Cacique” plays the role of the classical leader, uniting the tribe towards a short or middle term goal—like coordinating harvesting activities or organizing a hunting expedition—the Shaman is responsible to perpetuate the culture and keep it strong. Without a strong culture, the work of leading the tribe would be much more difficult. The leader would have to convince, decide and discuss good and bad behaviors every time. Culture helps facilitate most of the daily decisions, as it defines a common framework helping them resolve most daily social or moral problems. Having a common “cultural framework” provides a common understanding of what is “right” or “wrong”, and how things need to be done in many different situations. In an oral culture—where nothing is written—culture provides the basis for meaningful cooperation.

In the business world, we can use the analogy of the Shaman and the Cacique to help create a resilient system that will have long lasting performance. Effective teams that perform well under a good leader can be ruined with his departure. When a strong culture has been developed, a new leader can join without risking too much to break down the team’s performance. This is especially the case when the new leader comes from the same culture. In this case, his people are reassured as they can easily predict how he will behave in most situations. This is why it is important to make sure there are some people to assume the role of Shamans inside Agile teams. People that understand well the team’s culture and will promote it in the team. In the Agile world, Shamans could be Agile coaches, developers with a passion for craftsmanship, PO with a passion for customer value prioritization… Some methodologies such as Scrum have brought awareness to the importance of an ongoing “cultural work”. The Scrum Master for example, has the important task to keep an eye on the important rituals in the team, even while they are under pressure of short-term delivery.

6.3       Shamanic vision

Shamans will often spend a large part of their day entering in deep contact with spirits. After consuming hallucinogens, they begin to enter a trance that can last for hours. When they come back to reality, they explain their vision with great details in a somehow theatrical manner. Their audience is compelled by their story, which connects their imagination and creates a powerful common dream.

While staying with tribes, we quickly see how important Shamans are to give faith to their people, and keep them connected with the spirits of the forest, their main ecosystem. Shamans are probably key to maintaining a happy, joyful way of life in the jungle, instead of merely surviving, as most of foreigners can only do under such conditions. Indigenous people also suffer from heat, bites from mosquitos, humidity, malaria, infections, hunger… but they leave fully connected to their environment with happiness or what we would call a great “mental health”. We could relate the role of the Shaman to the “Visionary style”, one of the four styles of resonant leadership from Daniel Goleman’s Primal Leadership [Goleman]. Having a Shaman and a Cacique in your team, or at least having clear roles for them will ensure you can have action oriented, well-grounded leadership while developing long lasting culture and developing and sharing Vision and Values in your team.

7.      Conclusion

Indigenous people’s traditional knowledge comes from generations of experience of living in harmony with Nature. They have learned to adapt to a hostile environment and achieved the feat of inventing a healthy and happy way of life. Adapting to a complex and sometimes hostile environment is one of the key values brought by Agile. I wish that sharing some insights from Indigenous people can be a great source of inspiration to help us find a more human and healthy balance in this quest, and to be more respectful to the planet we all live on.

8.      Acknowledgements

I am deeply indebted to the many tribes we met during this long journey and who had the patience to share some of their fabulous knowledge with us. More particularly: Paulo Marubo, Otavio Yanomami and all the Marubo and Yanomami that spent time and effort to try to understand me as hard as I hope I did with them. In the hope that we will be able to listen to their call and use our time for a more useful purpose than simply accelerating the pace at which we produce and consume more widgets.

Thank you to the Brazilian NGO, “Instituto Socio Ambiental” for their help on our project and their tireless work at protecting and helping indigenous communities.

A great thanks as well to my mentor for this paper, Avraham Poupko who helped me realize the value behinds the ideas I expressed and helped me focus to writing them. As well as my dear wife who proofread and gave me the time to write this document.

Last but not least, a big thank you to Amaury Walgraef, all the OPUS team at Adeo and Franck Drecourt for their patience to withstand many of my long conversations and strange ideas.

References

[Belbéoc’h] Belbéoc’h, G. “XP & Scrum at Leroy.BR” presented at Agile Brazil 2016. Retrieved May 25, 2021 from: https://www.slideshare.net/gbelbe/xp-scrum-from-the-trenches-leroymerlin-brazil

[Bossa] Bossa nova website: https://www.agilebossanova.com/

[Goleman] Goleman, D. Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Harvard Business Review Press, 2016.

[Leite ]Leite, M. “Yaripo, the Yanomami Antenna to the World” in Folha De S. Paulo, September 17, 2017. Retrieved May 25, 2021 from:

https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/internacional/en/brazil/2017/09/1917756-yaripo-the-yanomami-antenna-to-the-world.shtml

[Skelton] Skelton, M., Pais, M. Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology Teams for Fast Flow. IT Revolution Press, 2019. [Univaja] Univaja website: https://univaja.com/

[Wikipedia] Fundação Nacional do Índio. Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funda%C3%A7%C3%A3o_Nacional_do_%C3%8Dndio

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