How Tribal Leadership Evolves in the Real World

By Liza Mock on Oct 09, 2017 in Stories

In the first installment of our Business Book Series, we covered Tribal Leadership, by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright. This book, based on years of research into hundreds of companies showed that organizations are really just a network of tribes moving through the 5 stages below. How these tribes function affects the success (or not) of an entire organization.

These stages are characterized as:

  1. Stage One: “Life Sucks”
  2. Stage Two: “My Life Sucks”
  3. Stage Three: “I'm Great...and You're Not”
  4. Stage Four: “We're Great...and They're Not”
  5. Stage Five: “Life is Great”

Our first installment looked at the theory. But what about the practice? How do you build tribes in a company and move from one stage to the next? Reaching stage five — the stage where everyone is no longer motivated by selfish or monetary gain, but rather by a drive to solve a global problem — is the ultimate goal. But no one starts there.

In this post, we are going to take you through one company—Griffin Hospital—and their journey from "life sucks" to "life's great".

About 30 years ago, Griffin Hospital found itself stuck in Stage Two. But with the guidance of tribal leaders, President and CEO Patrick Charmel and Vice President Bill Powanda, they were able to transcend stages over time by taking a bunch of important initiatives to become the Stage Four/Five company they are today.

While our story focuses on a hospital, it's important to remember that the problems and possibilities at each stage can affect anyone, whether you are a hospital or a dev team at a software company. The lessons learned can help any team figure out how they can move to the next stage.

Build Goodwill to Avoid the Hostility of Stage One

Today, they're a 160-bed, award-winning, patient-centered, acute care hospital based in the Lower Naugatuck Valley Region of CT. Griffin didn't start this way.

But neither did they start in Stage One. Hopefully, your company won't either. Here are a few real-life examples of what happens in companies in Stage One:

  • A company disappears after a series of accounting scandals.
  • Employees are constantly stealing money without blinking an eye.
  • Someone brings a shotgun to work — and no one is fazed.

Think Westworld with fewer androids and more lasting consequences. Clearly none of these companies were around for very long. A Stage One software company would have no chance of surviving. What's more likely is that this is the stage startups are in just before the fall, one of “Despairing Hostility” as the authors put it. If you or your company are here, get out!

Build Relationships to Shake Apathy in Stage Two

This is where the story of Griffin Hospital really begins.

Characteristically, Stage Two companies:

  • Feel they are making no impact
  • Have no direction
  • Employees aren't motivated enough to care
  • Employee work is low-quality

The overwhelming feeling is one of apathy. For Griffin Hospital in the mid-80s, passivity permeated throughout the whole company. 32% of nearby residents named Griffin as the hospital they would avoid if they needed care. None of the staff took responsibility and they didn't have a focus on the things patients wanted — modern facilities, a welcoming staff, and an emphasis on putting the patient first.

This changed when VP Bill Powanda's father-in-law was admitted to Griffin for an inoperable stomach ulcer. No one did anything for a whole month. The staff were rude and simply didn't care — and this was a family member of the vice president. He could only imagine what it was like for the other patients.

Powanda's goal became to create a more humane and patient-sensitive care model for the patient and family, but he knew he would need to get every single member of staff, not just the executives or board members, invested for this to happen.

This is the beginning of a tribe. Importantly, Powanda didn't start with top-down initiatives. Instead he conducted mini-retreats in which staff members were asked to put themselves in the patient's shoes and asked “What would you want your hospital experience to be?”

This built relationships both internally and externally. Internally, the staff started talking to each other about how to make their hospital a better place. They were no longer passive in the process. Externally, all the staff started seeing the wider mission of the hospital and how it related to their patients.

Relating your work to a bigger goal is an important part of building tribes, and moving from Stage Two onwards. Teams that are most likely to get stuck in Stage Two are accounts, procurement, and HR. This is because they are internally-focused.

In software, it might be clear to product and engineering teams how they are making a difference. But it might not be clear to other team members if they aren't directly involved in the product or with the customers. Allowing them to be involved in the conversation and being part of the tribe can instill the “pride” present in the later stages and help stave off apathy in the team.

Build Triads to Remove Lone Warriors in Stage Three

This is the “Lone Warrior” stage and a lot of professionals cap out here.

In jobs like attorney, doctor, professor, or sales, you are evaluated on how much you know and how much you can do. Everyone is always competing to be the best, and they're willing to do whatever it takes to get there — a very distinctive characteristic of Stage Three. Even if people are working in teams, there's still always a star player who is held above the rest. This mentality is why 49% of workplace tribes in the US are stuck at Stage Three.

As Griffin began to rebuild from the ground up, quite literally as they were restructuring their building, everyone was invited and encouraged to give feedback. This created a sense of community and made sure everyone knew that their opinion was valued. Individual responsibility was no longer missing, like in the earlier stages.

But this individualism still caused problems. The sense of community didn't quite extend to the leadership. Patrick Charmel, COO at the time, and the then-CEO disagreed on how financial resources should be allocated to support growth of the hospital. Charmel got fired. The then-CEO saw the growth of the hospital as his personal mission. He wanted to win. He was great. The other members of the tribe weren't.

This sparked a backlash that threatened to tear apart the tenuous bonds that Griffin had just begun to build up. The employees came together and protested for Charmel's return. When he was finally reinstated, he was welcomed back with a huge reception. This was an emotional “tribal moment” for Griffin that helped launch them into the next stage.

For startups that rely on “superstars” early on, staying in this stage is common. These people have to win, and the winning is personal, rather than team-based. But you don't need a round of layoffs to resolve this issue. Instead, it again comes down to building the right relationships within the company—triads.

dyadic vs triadic relationships diagram

[Based on figure from High Performance Advocates]

Dyadic relationships are characterized by having two people. So you may think that a triadic relationship is simply a triangular relationship between three people, but it's much more than that. In a triad, each person feels responsible for the quality of the relationship between the other two people, not just their own relationships within the group. Everyone is driven by the same core values and mutual self-interest.

This is where the biggest distinction between Stage Three and Stage Four teams comes in. Stage Three is characterized by many dyadic relationships which may look like triads, but there is a lack of group responsibility. Stage Four occurs when triadic relationships dominate. This is key to building a sense of community — if two people have a disagreement, in a triad, the third person becomes responsible for helping to stabilize and grow the relationship.

Two ways software companies can build triads into their workflow are:

  • Make an effort to create triads with every new project. Injecting triads into the company culture will start introducing the idea as something that should be done automatically.
  • When problems come up, bring in someone else to form a triad to help address the issue. Getting everyone in the triad involved will form strong connections and break out of dyadic tendencies.

Build Pride to Beat the Competition in Stage Four

With strong leaders, CEO Patrick Charmel and Vice President Bill Powanda, Griffin's employees felt a strong sense of tribe. This built a community where everyone believed in the company, their goals and the ability of their leaders to help the company achieve their goals.

In Stage Four, the leaders of the group feel just as inspired and motivated by their team members, as the team members do by their leaders. But in Stage Four, this sense of community only extends internally — there is still an adversary who serves as the competitive motivation to improve. For sports teams, that's usually their biggest rival (Duke vs UNC anyone?). For Apple, it's Google or Microsoft. For Griffin, it's the entire way of doing business in healthcare.

For you, it will be your competitors. Your team will be actively trying to beat the competition. But in contrast to Stage Three were they are trying to beat the competition alone (and sometimes the competition internally as well), in Stage Four the entire team is focused on winning together.

Griffin is mostly a Stage Four company. They spike into Stage Five on their best days, but ultimately, they still show some strong signs of Stage Four behavior. There is a strong sense of tribe and community within the company, but if this sense of tribe is taken away, that ultimately affects every employee's sense of self. This reliance on the tribe is what keeps Griffin from fully becoming a Stage Five company.

Build Wonder in Your Team to Consistently Reach Stage Five

Stage Five teams are characterized by pure leadership, vision and inspiration leading to miraculous innovations. Teams reaching Stage Five have given us things like the first Macintosh and inspiring Olympic wins. But these teams don't usually stay in Stage Five. They'll recede back to Stage Four when encountering and fixing any issues before returning to Five to continue innovating.

Griffin experiences Stage Five in much the same way, with each day bringing different challenges or successes. There are three main things that Charmel and Powanda attribute to helping them achieve “Stage Five days”:

  • There is a huge focus on building strong relationships not just with employees, but also volunteers and patients.
  • Staff members are taught through example and as a group, so everyone is responsible for coming up with strategies and a sense of community is built.
  • Leadership remains fairly hands-off. Team members are given a chance to contribute in their own way to achieve their goals.

The most important thing is extending the sense of community beyond just the team to every patient who comes into the hospital. Everyone builds quality relationships with everyone. From doctors, to patients, to volunteers, to administrators, everyone is welcomed in as part of the tribe. This sense of community is what helps bring companies up to the final stages.

Build Your Community

We mention triads as the key to creating a Stage Four or Stage Five organization, but the main lesson to be learned is building a culture of care. If everyone in your tribe genuinely cares about the well-being of everyone else and welcomes everyone into the tribe, you're well on your way to becoming a Stage Five company.

Find ways to break up naturally forming dyadic relationships or internal competition. Only when everyone feels that they're equally valued, and there's no need to rise to the top, can you start building a community that grows together.