Tribal Leadership

Fish school, birds flock, humans tribe.

The authors of Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build Thriving Organizations tell us that these tribes — groups of between 20 and 150 people — are everywhere and tend to form naturally around sets of common values, shared experiences, and noble causes. Members of the same tribe are easily identifiable by their genuine connections to one another (as in, two members would naturally stop and chat if they encountered one another walking down the street).

In what the authors describe as peak ‘Stage Five’ organizations; power, influence, creativity, and innovation are not attributed to a divine class of smart, hard working hero CEOs or to laser-focused teams of project-driven MBAs. No, these thriving organizations have (re)discovered the formidable power of values-based, noble-cause-driven, strategic-thinking natural groupings of creative and energized ‘triading’ individuals. They are changing the rules, making history, and having a great time in the process.

Tribal leaders have very different relationships to the group than the typical boss-subordinate roles seen across typical low-performing organizations: tribal leaders speak in ‘we’ terms, not in ‘me’ language. And they prefer triadic (three-person) relationships over dyadic (two-person) ones. They work to continuously nudge and upgrade the tribal culture to the next evolutionary stage and to shift egos from the zone of personal to that of tribal consciousness. This psychological and behavioral shift is what gives individuals in tribes their outsized effectiveness.

Tribes and leaders naturally create each other — they mutually arise. They co-evolve together as lines between leaders and followers get blurred. In effective tribal cultures, leaders actively nurture relationships among tribe members, craft experiences to find and maintain common goals and values, and then get out of the way and let members co-create the tribal culture around those shared goals and values. By continuously reinforcing shared interests, tribal leaders move the culture in the right direction.

The central theme of Tribal Leadership is that you are only as smart and capable as your tribe, and that by upgrading your tribe, you multiply the results of your efforts and create the conditions for leaving behind an enduring legacy that would be impossible to do alone.

The language, values, relationships, and interactions that make up a tribe — the tribes culture — can be crudely defined in five evolutionary stages that are observable by the language spoken, behaviors, and types of relationships between tribe members.

The general mood of individuals in a Stage One tribe (about 2 percent of American professionals) — where members feel disempowered and weak — is that of ‘despairing hostility.’ The life-sucks attitude in this culture is assumed to be universal and inescapable. In fact, if a tribe exists at all, it is most likely a gang.

At Stage Two (about 25 percent of workplaces), individuals feel that only their life sucks (at the moment) and feel victimized, disconnected, disengaged, and apathetic; but are aware that others have good lives, and therefore observe that life can be good. When some success comes their way and they begin to ‘find their groove,’ they move up to Stage Three — the zone of personal accomplishment.

Stage Three tribe members (found in around 50 percent of workplace cultures) adopt the psychology of hero or lone warrior and begin to think of themselves as superior to others around them — “I am great (and you are not).” Members of Stage Three tribes tend to hoard information (i.e., ‘knowledge is power’) and see winning as personal — and winning is everything. Stage Three leaders tend to do more talking than others, form many dyadic (two-person) relationships, and don’t like relationships that form around them. Gossip and spies are used to get political information. Being the smartest, hardest working, and most successful is all that matters.

When Stage Three members have an epiphany and realize the limitations of working alone, they join a group of other lone warriors and team up, collaborate, and share success to get greater things done — things they could not do on their own. They then begin the move to a Stage Four tribal culture (about 25 percent of workplace cultures) and exhibit tribal pride and a group attitude of “we’re great” (and they — their adversaries — are not). Less attention is paid to organizational boundaries. They begin to achieve what was not possible in a Stage Three culture: esteem, genuine respect (not respect through fear), deep loyalties, and the possibility of an enduring legacy.

Stage Four we-are-great tribes focus on projects, activities, initiatives, and processes that are fueled by shared values and aligned with a noble cause. Values that cut across a group of people can elevate the effectiveness of a tribe to a zone of appreciation and emotion that leads to quasi miraculous performance. Uniformity of values — tribal alchemy — is the glue that binds together effective groups and draws out sustained creative initiatives. A noble cause captures a tribe’s ultimate aspiration. It can even bring together rivals in service to the common purpose. Values are the means; the noble cause is the end.

Tribal culture peaks at Stage Five where the need for an adversary group by which to compare greatness status falls away and a mood of innocent wonderment emerges, along with an unqualified general feeling that life is great. Members of a Stage Five tribe are only in competition with what is possible, not with another tribe. They let the tribe use them, rather than attempt to dominate other tribal members. They are after outsized wins that can only be achieved with the help of other talented and motivated people. They recognize that greater power does not come from greater knowledge, but from greater networks — that there is more leverage in shared wisdom than in siloed information.

Stage Five happens when a Stage Four tribe commits to a strategy that they think is beyond them and beyond any competitor that would have an impact on the entire world. Self-imposed barriers are transcended and success is greeted with overwhelming surprise and gratitude. Other groups are attracted to Stage Five tribes through it’s ‘global’ or ‘resonant’ values. Stage Five tribal leaders tend to broker treaties between tribes while shunning the spotlight.

Unfortunately, for most organizations, Stage Five cultures do not tend to lock in. Rather, the tribes oscillate — like a series of waves — with short crests in Stage Five mode and longer troughs in Stage Four.

Triads are the basic structure of Stage Four and Stage Five personal relationships. Unlike dyads — two-person linking relationships that are the structural hallmark of Stage Three I-am-great (and you are not) relationships of relative power and influence, triad relationships lead to a blurring of roles between leader, follower, boss, subordinate, friend, mentor, and coach. Triads are usually three individuals, but can also be three groups that work together.

Triad relationships have three main advantages over dyadic relationships: stability, innovation, and scalability.

Any one member of the triad is responsible for the quality of the relationship between the other two and typically appeals to shared values to keep the triad together during difficult times. Unlike in Stage Three tribes where outside ideas are routinely rejected as ‘not invented here,’ triading in Stage Four encourages networking with new individuals and groups to strengthen relationships, stimulate creativity, and drive innovation. Scaling up organizations is much easier with triad interactions as a result of ‘webbing’ of relationships — where individuals or groups triad other groups into the tribe. Triading works best when two people are introduced by a third on the basis of current projects, shared values, and common motives and goals.

Tribal leaders naturally encourage triading to create and nurture strong webs of reinforcing relationships among tribal members. They know that an organization is only as strong as the shared culture of its tribe. A tribe leader’s most important goal is to find and articulate the shared values that unite the tribe and a noble cause that will align tribal members to produce coordinated action with passionate resolve.

Tribal values and principles matter greatly; they are superior to the edicts of executives and managers.

True tribal leaders follow the core values of the tribe no matter the cost. They are subservient to it and accountable to higher ethical standards of behavior. They use words and relationships wisely to change what needs to be changed and take responsibility for tribal maintenance programs where grievances can be aired, alignment between activities and the touchstones of values and a noble cause can be tested, and relationships between tribal members can be nurtured and deepened to ensure the ongoing success of a healthy and robust Stage Four or Stage Five culture.

Though tribal leaders do their work for the good of the group, not for themselves, they are ultimately rewarded personally with the loyalty, hard work, innovation, and collaboration that gets higher quality work done in less time.