Business Books Series: Tribal Leadership

tribal leadership flowchart

Have you ever wondered why that one coworker spends more time gossiping than working and always tries to get away with doing as little as possible? Why is it that certain people thrive off of drama while others truly care about the team, while still others are all about us vs. them?

In their book, Tribal Leadership, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer Wright examine just that. They break people up into five different "tribal stages" and look at what drives behavior in each one. The fifth stage — harmonious unity, is most desired and hardest to achieve because, the book argues, all tribes must go through stages one-four first. This post will help you see which "tribal stage" you and your company are in and will hopefully spark ideas for how to move to the next one if you so desire.

Since the beginning of time, humans have formed social groups to survive. This tribal behavior is what has helped humans gain unique emotional and social elements that have helped put us at the top of the natural pyramid. It's not surprising that tribal behavior still dominates our lives and has seeped into the workplace. Tribal Leadership makes the case that if we examine and better understand the base forces that drive us and our coworkers, we just might evolve and create a more harmonious work environment.

Stage One: “Life Sucks”

In the first stage, people are isolated and hopeless. They see the world as inherently unfair with no prospects of improvement and have very little, if any, social ties.

Gatherings of Stage One people tend to end in violence or crime since these people are willing to go to any means to fulfill their desires in this unfair world. Everyone has it bad and it will stay that way until morale improves.

Tribal leadership: stage 1This stage would be demonstrated in the workplace by members of the tribe being hostile towards one another and doing things like:

  • Purposefully creating scandals
  • Stealing from the company
  • Threatening violence

A company in stage one would get nothing done because the members of the team would constantly be finding ways to undermine one another to fulfill their own needs. This kind of company would fall apart very quickly.

Fortunately, most professionals skip this stage.

Stage Two: “My Life Sucks”

Stage Two starts to show the beginnings of connections. In this stage, people still feel disconnected from the world around them, but observe those around them succeeding. They feel powerless and show stubborn apathy as they see life working out for others, but not for them.

Tribal Leadership: Stage 2In the workplace, Stage Two people will be constantly complaining and will lack any initiative or drive. They will do the bare minimum that is required of them. Any confrontation, new request or change will be met with sarcasm and resistance.

Because of this constant contention and lack of motivation, Stage Two companies can't get anything done. Without cooperation between team members, projects will get completed at the very last minute and without much effort. A Stage Two company won't last very long if they continue on this path.

About 25% of workplace tribes can be characterized by Stage Two.

Stage Three: “I'm Great...and You're Not”

In Stage Three, people begin to gain confidence in themselves. But with this confidence comes an inflated ego and sense of accomplishment and a need to put others down. People in this stage will hoard knowledge to help them outwork and out-think their coworkers, or as they see them, competitors.

While these people won't refuse to work in teams, they will do so for their own benefit. Anything that will give these lone wolves a competitive advantage will be something they'll pursue — they just want to be the best and the brightest.

Tribal Leadership: Stage 3In the workplace, Stage Three leaders will be seen building many dyadic, or two-person relationships. This allows them to gain and hoard information while acting as a central hub between disconnected members of their team. They think that no one else works as hard as they do, so they require that everything have their approval before being executed.

While this mentality does make for a slightly more productive atmosphere than Stage Two, it still bottlenecks the company from reaching their full potential. Cross-team collaboration is nearly impossible as each team leader will think that they're better than the other. Companies that stay in Stage Three will have a hard time achieving higher goals and moving up in their industry because workers will be too busy trying to show that they're the MVP.

49% of workplace tribes will find themselves in this stage.

Stage Four: “We're Great...and They're Not”

Between Stage Three and Stage Four is where the mentality shifts to start encompassing the group. Rather than people thinking that they're better than everyone else, they begin to think that the entire tribe as a whole is better than the competition. Because of this belief, members of the tribe will see any success of the tribe as a success for themselves.

The cause of this unity can be for one of two reasons:

1. A unique set of values molded from individual values
2. A noble cause

Whatever the reason, all members of the tribe are aligned with the tribe's cause and value.

Tribal Leadership: Stage 4Stage Four behavior is shown in the workplace by all members working together to benefit the entire company. Any development of individual strengths is seen as beneficial to the team and knowledge is shared to improve team performance.

Relationships within Stage Four are built in threes, which allows for the sharing of knowledge and building of stronger bonds. The company is united to build themselves up, and all progress is made in the name of beating out any encroaching competition. Companies in this stage will find themselves able to grow and thriving in their field, but eventually when there's no one else to beat, they may find that they've lost the drive that used to motivate them.

Stage Five: “Life is Great”

At Stage Five, people are no longer motivated for personal reasons. They are now fueled by a noble cause, and their goal is to change the world in an impactful way. Progress is for the sake of improving the world around them, rather than just beating out the competition.

Tribal Leadership Stage 5To a Stage Five workplace, the competition has shifted from actual competitors to larger problems like “disease”, “world hunger” or “poverty”. Everyone in the organization believes they are working toward achieving the impossible.

In this workplace, everyone does things because they feel like they're making an impact. Ideas are shared and motivations are constantly high as people work towards a goal that truly matters to them.

Achieving this stage requires progressing through and moving past all four stages. Because of this, less than 2% of workplace cultures achieve this prized Unicorn-culture.

Ascending the Stages

Most workplaces will have a mix of people in different stages, but a majority will fit into whichever stage the company itself is in. Before a workplace can figure out how to reach the next stage, it must first figure out what stage it's currently in. They key to figuring that out is brutal honesty.

A good place to start is by examining your company culture, values and rewards systems. Ask yourself, is teamwork rewarded or do only "the fittest" rise to the top while the rest get left behind? Does your company do anything to contribute to charity? What does the C-level value? Only once you've realized where your motivations and those of your company truly lie, can you start making changes to move to the next level.