We all want to belong to something. We all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. A group. A club. An association.

To reach our highest potential, we need to go beyond thinking of our “customer base” and our “employees” and start thinking of our tribe. You may have a group of clients or a number of employees, but that is not a tribe. In a tribe, people feel a deep affiliation with— and take pride in—your fitness business.

Tribes are powerful. Companies that lead tribes are more profitable and usually more cutting-edge than others. Think Apple, Zappos, TOMS, Nike and Google!

Discover what makes a tribe work and how you can grow yours.

What Is a Tribe?

Seth Godin, author of Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, defines a tribe as a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader and connected to an idea (Godin 2008).

A tribe results when people come together for a passion, a vision, or a desire for change. Today’s best companies don’t just put out a product—they put out a feeling, a cause or a vision. A tribe needs only two things: a shared interest and a way to communicate.

Why do you want to build a fitness tribe? If your clients feel part of your tribe, they will show a higher level of commitment, passion and pride. When your employees feel they belong to your tribe, they will be happier, more innovative and more productive. Working in a company you believe in is much more rewarding than earning a paycheck from a business you don’t care about.

Every Tribe Needs a Leader

In doing the research for Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, the authors studied 24,000 people in more than 24 corporations. They found that the success of a company depended on its tribe. The tribe depended on its culture. And the culture depended on the leader (Logan, King & Fisher-Wright 2009).

A tribe without a leader is just a group. Every tribe needs a leader. You do not need 100 followers to be a leader. If you have an idea and you are passionate about it, you can lead a tribe. If your business is just about sets and reps, you will have trouble building a tribe. If your company tells people what to do and employs people who only want a paycheck, you will have trouble building a tribe. If you are inauthentic in your reason for doing business, you will have trouble building a tribe. If you are not prepared to lead, you will have trouble building a tribe. But if you can tie what moves you in to your business, you can build a tribe. Be authentic and know who you are. Effective leaders serve their tribes.

Emphasizing Your “Why”

Care about the business you are in and why you do it. We are all in the fitness business. That is our WHAT. But when you know your WHY, your team and your customers begin to care as well.

When I started Stroller Strides® (now FIT4MOM®) in 2001, I realized I had found my tribe. Why did I do what I did? My WHY was to create a village, a network of support for moms, a place where they would find physical and emotional strength. Every one of our instructors leads knowing that our WHY is to “give women the strength for motherhood.” That WHY has led us to create a tribe of over 60,000 moms.

An amazing thing happens when you find your WHY. The tribe finds you. Create your services and your products based on what will serve your tribe. Your tribe will then gain followers.

Make sure that your customers and employees understand your WHY. It is essential that they grasp your vision, what makes you unique and special. “Customers don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it,” explains Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why (Sinek 2009).

Know that your tribe longs to belong. Help your team see how they contribute to the WHY, and give your customers ways to belong. It’s about communication, collaboration and community in your workplace. Talk to your tribe with respect and with heart.

Tribes Have No Boundaries

Tribes used to be limited by geography. However, the Internet has eliminated that barrier, giving us the ability to grow tribes beyond our town. People have always wanted to connect. The Internet and social media have made that easy. But a tribe still needs a leader. The leader connects the people, the passion and the ideas.

Kim Eagle, MS, creator of Earn That BodyTM in Austin, Texas, runs her tribes online. Her Web-based health and fitness business revolves around helping clients lose weight and/or get in the best shape of their lives. Clients share a common goal and feel they belong to a tribe. They create bonds that last well beyond her 8-week program. When they have a bad food day or miss a workout, they tell the tribe and are often remotivated by others who experienced the same thing but got back on track right away. When people achieve a victory, Eagle encourages them to share it with fellow tribe mates.

Tips for a Successful Tribe

Whether you already lead a tribe or want to make your business more like one, these strategies can help:

Change the language to change the culture. Communication is essential. Some people talk all the time and always have an opinion to share. Others tend to be quieter and keep their thoughts inside. Talkers need to pull back a bit to make room for new voices, and quiet team members need to speak up a bit so their ideas are heard. The middle makes for a sweet spot of conversation. Help everyone participate.

Get real. Forget small talk with your tribe members. Dig in. Do you know what really matters to them? What is their dream? Can you be a part of it? Can you help them get there?

Challenge your tribe. This suggestion isn’t just about raising the bottom line. Challenge your people so that they keep growing, and so that work is never boring. Most importantly, show them their unlimited possibilities—as fitness pros and as people.

AIR your tribe. AIR stands for Appreciation, Inspiration and Recognition. When was the last time you received applause? At your high-school graduation? Make it a point to celebrate success, to inspire your clients and staff about the future, and to recognize accomplishments. Go big! Applaud people.

Adapting to Today’s World

The world is changing fast. People want to buy from companies that do good and that make them feel good (think Newman’s Own®, which donates all its after-tax profits to charity). In our fitness industry, the opportunities are huge. We have the chance to share our love, our passion and our purpose in order to make great change. Now, go out and start or grow your tribe!

Tribe Example #1: Fitness Quest 10

Todd Durkin, MA, founder of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, is an expert at creating tribes. All of his employees feel proud to belong to the Fitness Quest Team. Durkin believes that the feeling comes from the company’s culture training. His hiring process is lengthy and extensive, but once people make it, they are part of the tribe. His employees receive a Credo Card, which contains Fitness Quest’s core principles and the service values they stand for. Additionally, the company conducts at least four team functions per year. These activities build morale, culture and tribe. For instance, his whole team participates in a local 4th of July parade, exercising for its entire 3-mile length. Durkin also throws an annual barbecue for the team at his home. And each year he holds an “offsite” state-of-the-union meeting, where he goes through the updated mission, vision, goals and financials for the year.

Tribe Example #2: Iron Tribe Fitness™

Sometimes a tribe forms without even trying! Forrest Walden is the founder of Iron Tribe Fitness, which started in Birmingham, Alabama (he even made tribe part of the name). He was working out with neighbors in his garage, and friends started referring to them as the “cult in his backyard.” Walden knew something special was brewing but didn’t like the negative connotation of the word cult. He recognized that the group was forming a very positive and tight fitness community that could work across a broad range of demographics. He wanted a name and brand that spoke to the positive side of community. Not a cult, but a tribe!

How does Walden help clients feel part of his tribe? He first focuses on the relationship between coaches and individual clients; for example, a coach knows each client’s first name and uses it in every class. “Mailing positive handwritten notes on a monthly basis and conducting routine one-on-one coaching assessments go a long way to developing a close relationship, even in a group training atmosphere,” notes Walden. From there, coaches focus on fostering their clients’ relationships with others in the class. They do that through competition, camaraderie and fun.

Iron Tribe Fitness also connects its tribes (i.e., its clubs) with a cause. The company’s national Workout for Water campaign has raised over $300,000 to build clean water wells in India and Africa, and its national Workout for Warriors fundraiser has brought in more than $150,000 for American veterans.


Godin, S. 2008. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. New York: Penguin.

Logan, D., King, J., & Fisher-Wright, H. 2009. Tribal Leadership. New York: HarperCollins.

Sinek, S. 2009. Start with Why. New York: Portfolio.

Lisa Druxman, MA

Lisa Druxman, MA, is the owner and founder of Stroller StridesÔäó. She holds a masterÔÇÖs degree in exercise science and is a recognized presenter, writer and instructor. Certification: ACE

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