this is a review of Tribal Leadership. much of the content of this post is taken directly from the book

Birds flock, fish school, people “tribe.”

I just finished reading Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, an amazing book that teaches how to build a better organization in which the best people want to work and make an impact. The book is based on a 10-year research study with 24,000 people across two dozen organizations from around the world.

A tribe is a group of 20 to 150 people who know one another enough that, if they saw another walking down the street, would stop and say “hello.”

What makes the tribe more effective than others is its culture.

Culture is a product of the language people use (words create reality), and the behaviors that accompany those words. The words we use to describe ourselves, our work, and others, creates the world we live in.

Tribal Leaders are the people who focus their efforts on upgrading the tribal culture. (upgrading the words we use to describe our reality and the behaviors we practice that shape the direction of our lives)

They set the standard of performance in their industries, from productivity and profitability to employee retention, and attract talent. Most of all, they help bring groups to unity by recognizing their ‘tribalness’ – getting people to talk about the things they really care about, coming together around these common causes, and forming missions to make something great happen, and to live in greatness.

The goal of Tribal Leadership is to learn how to get people ‘unstuck’ – from unhelpful language and behaviors, so we can level up and transition into higher-performance, less stressful, and more fun states of Being.

The Five Tribal Stages

The main concept of the book is that a tribe is defined by its culture. For the purpose of helping us scaffold our language and behavior, the authors have framed five tribal stages that exhibit specific types of language, and therefore culture. It’s mentioned several times throughout the book that they do not address cognitions, beliefs, attitudes, or other factors that we cannot directly observe. Just language and behavior.

Each stage is more desirable and will outperform the previous one, with Stage Five being the most preferable. People and groups must move through stages one at a time, and each stage has leverage points that will nudge people forward.

The graphic above represents the flavor of each stage. Take a look for the theme and mood of each one:

Stage One – ‘Life Sucks’

Most people are socially alienated, and the theme of their words is that life has given them a bad deal, so it’s ok to do whatever it takes to survive.

Stage Two – ‘My Life Sucks’

Most people do the minimum to get by, show almost no initiative or passion, and engage in passive-aggressive behavior.

Stage Three – ‘I’m Great (and you’re not)’ – (49% of organizations are here)

‘People engage in anything that’s going on, with energy and commitment, but when you listen closely, they talk mostly about themselves and focus on appearing smarter and better than others. They think they’re focused on team concerns, but their actions show their interest is personal. People tend to form two-person relationships, so if they manage of group of ten, they have ten relationships. They rarely bring people together, they resist sharing information except when it’s necessary, and they pride themselves on being better informed than others. Winning is all that matters, and winning is personal. People at this stage complain that they don’t have enough time or support and that the people around them aren’t as competent or as committed as they are.’

Stage Four – ‘We’re Great’

‘Teams are the norm, focused around shared values and a common purpose. Information moves freely throughout the group. People’s relationships are built on shared values. They tend to ask, “what’s the next right thing to do?” and to build ad hoc partnerships to accomplish what’s important at the moment. Their language focuses on “we,” not “me.” If two people get in a squabble, a third will step in and repair the relationship rather than create a personal following for himself. Unlike Stage Two, the group is composed of people who have played the Stage Three game and won – and are ready for genuine partnerships.’

Stage Five – ‘Life is Great’

‘Your tribes hardly ever refer to the competition, except to note how remarkable their own culture is by comparison, and how far their results outstrip industry norms. The theme of communication is limitless potential, bounded only by imagination and group commitment. People in this culture can find a way to work with almost anyone, provided their commitment to values is at the same intensity as their own. (Unlike Stage Four, the focus isn’t on “our values” but on resonant values.) There is almost no fear, stress, or workplace conflict. People talk as though the world is watching them, which may well be the case, as their results are making history.”

Apparently most companies surveyed for the book are mixes of stage 2-4, with most people somewhere between “my life sucks” and “I’m great.”

The idea is to get the critical mass of people evolving into the next stage, which produces a new, self-sustaining culture. It’s not done through training seminars and the latest change management, but helping each person directly in changing the types of words they use and the types of relationships they form. The change happens within people, and then begins radiating outward as others can observe the change and modify themselves accordingly.

The journey to Stage Four and beyond happens in one of two ways:

  1. person has an epiphany (intellectual, emotional, even spiritual), realizing Stage Three will never provide the kind of success they crave, and they seek out a stronger community
  2. person joins a technical project that is bigger than one person can take on alone

As people move into stage 4, the tribe becomes visible to itself, resulting in:

  • people collaborate and work toward a noble cause, propelled from their values
  • fear and stress go down as the ‘interpersonal friction’ of working together decreases
  • the entire tribe shifts from resisting leadership to seeking it out
  • organizational learning becomes effortless, with the tribe actively teaching its members the latest thinking and practices
  • setting and implementing a successful competitive strategy becomes stunningly easy as people’s aspirations, knowledge of the market, and creativity are unlocked and shared
  • people report feeling more alive and having more fun

How to Become a Tribal Leader

Now we understand the general framework of the tribal leadership system.

Next is to become a Tribal Leader!

This is a very personal journey of inner transformation. As they put it in the book, do the “prep work” on yourself first, including:

  • Learn the language and customs of all five cultural stages.
  • Listen for which tribal members speak which language – in essence, who is at what stage?
  • Move yourself forward, so that your own “center of gravity” is at least Stage Four, meaning you start talking a different language and shifting the structure of relationships around you.
  • Build a support network around you so you’re stable at Stage Four
  • Take these actions as you upgrade the tribe around you.

It says,

“Remember that Tribal Leadership is not about changing ideas or gaining knowledge; it is about changing language and relationships. It’s not about intellectualizations; it’s about actions.”

The next step is to get a core group of people in your tribe to Stage Four, and start paying attention to things like triads, values, developing a noble cause, and building a tribal strategy.

The next post in the series will describe the process of leading other through the stages.

Stay tuned!

And a plug for anyone who’s interested in meeting Dave Logan (one of the authors of Tribal Leadership), or to learn more about the future of work, please come to the Agile Culture Conference in Philadelphia (Sept 12) and Boston (Sept 14). I’ll be there to learn and grow!

To learn more about that event, check out this post.

You can use the discount code CULTUREHACKING to get $10 bucks off registration.

See ya there!


free download of Tribal Leadership from zappos website