Leadership Notes #33 – Tribal Leadership

(This series of “notes” first appeared in the YahooGroup “VenturingList” and are written by Michael Brown. I thought that they were worth sharing with the Commissioner Corps.)

“Tribal leadership” is an interesting concept about large groups that exist within organizations (both companies and non-profit groups). “Tribe” is the term the authors chose, and has nothing to do with native Americans or African tribes or the like. “Tribes” are groups of 20-150. Below 20 is where you have teams. And when a group goes over 150, will split into 2 tribes. So smaller organizations may comprise one tribe, whereas larger organizations may have 2 or 3 or more tribes.

So what is your “tribe”? It’s more than just your circle of friends. It’s the group of people you work with at your company or in the organizations you are in. It’s the people you probably have in your contact list (phone or email). Your ‘circle of acquaintances’, which is more than just your friends. As the authors put it, if you met them on the street, you’d at least say “hi” to them.

You might say “so what? My crew has less than 20 people, that’s not a tribe”. True. But you know people in other crews. Your VOA (whether district or council) works to bring together the various crews. The interconnections between the crews most likely are creating a tribe, so it’s not the tribe in Crew 101, but the tribe that exists within the New Horizon VOA. In general, your district and council leadership are tribes and so on to higher levels.

This is all covered in the book “Tribal Leadership” by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright (2008, paperback edition in 2011 with new intro and afterward). They have a website: http://www.triballeadership.net . There are some good videos on Youtube that explain this concept, but these should be used as an introduction, not as a replacement for reading the book. The TED video is a good intro, and for a longer overview take a look at the Google talk or the Rypple video:

TED video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTkKSJSqU-I
Plug on the book: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2h954Hz2Rk
Google talk on book (long): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jirePLc0U1A
Rypple video series (long): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKM4Nf1HI7M

The authors speak of 5 stages of tribes and the people in them. Each stage has certain characteristics. They speak of a ‘theme’ of each stage, which is illustrated by a certain phrase. There is a mood of people at each stage and how they work together (or not). People can move up the different stages, so it’s both a function of the attitude of the individuals, and their leader(s) as to what kind of tribe it is, sometimes it’s the ‘system’ (corporate culture) the people are a part of that defines the stage you’re in (leave that system and you can level that stage). And, yes, people can move down in stages as well. Someone with a Stage 1 attitude who comes into a higher stage tribe will either be changed or removed. The efforts of a leader can transform a lower stage tribe to a higher one, but the members of the tribe also need to be willing to change.

What then are these 5 stages?

Stage 1 is marked by the attitude “life sucks”. Only about 2% of groups operate here. This is the stage of criminals and gangs, a group of hostile people. In a company, this would be a group that is stealing from the company or the like.

Stage 2 is a big step up from Stage 1. Its theme is “MY life sucks”, a little different. About 25% of groups are here. This is the type of group you see on “The Office” or when you visit the department of motor vehicles. People don’t care, and it shows. In many cases, this has been caused by the culture of the group. People have been beat down. No among of touchy-feely stuff like team building exercises, motivational posters, or the like will change things.

Stage 3 is the dominant culture of groups, with 49% of groups being here. Its theme is “I’m great”, with the unspoken completion of “and you’re not”. This is where you have a group of experts, who do not work together (and why should they? Each one feels that “I’m great, and you’re not”), and so it’s a culture of the ‘lone warrior’ (“oh, I had to do all this work, because no one else can do it. After all, I’m great, and you’re not”). Everyone is in it to win it for themselves. Again, the system these people are in is what causes this attitude. It’s not necessarily that people are selfish or the like, but the system they are in causes them to be this way.

One big characteristic of this stage is the relationship between people. It’s always between two people. The authors use the term “dyadic” for this. But the relationship is a negative one. This is not a mentor/mentee relationship or a partnership. Here the two-way relationship is more of a leader and a follower, where the follower is told what to do and only given limited amount of information. If a leader has several followers, then the relationship still is between the leader and each individual follower, there is no teamwork, there is no connection between the different followers. If you chart the relationships, you get a wheel/spoke, instead of an interconnected web. This is an important point, as changing this is an important factor in moving a group to Stage 4.

As noted, the largest group of tribes are at this stage. A perfect example of this is the movie “Office Space”. Lumbergh, the manager, is the classic example of the “stage 3 boss”. All his underlings are weak Stage 3 or Stage 2. Stage 3 bosses prefer weak Stage 3 people or Stage 2 people, as they can dominate them. The character of Milton is at Stage 2, who is pushed back to Stage 1 by Lumbergh. And you see the result of this.

Stage 4 is next, and it’s a huge jump for Stage 3. Here the theme is “we’re great”, with the unspoken completing being “and they’re not”. This is actually the stage that tribal leadership should be trying to move people to (I’ll explain why shortly). About 22% of groups are here. And it can be very difficult to get here, both for the leader and for the followers. The leader needs to move beyond the “I’m great” attitude, and think in terms of what is best for the group. But once done, it’s the place to be.

The concept of “they’re not” is that usually Stage 4 tribes have a “rival” they are ‘fighting’ against. For companies, it could be the competition, in colleges, it’s a rival college. For tribes at Stage 4 to move to Stage 5, this rival needs to be more abstract. So for a pharmaceutical company, their rival is not the competition so much as diseases.

Stage 5 is the final stage. Here the theme is “LIFE is great”. Unlike in Stage 4, there is no attitude of an ‘enemy’ to fight per say. But one thing that is pointed out is that this stage is unstable. What you want as a goal is to get to Stage 4, and move the group at times into Stage 5. But in Stage 5, great things happen.

An overview of the 5 stages are:

Stage theme mood Collaboration percentage
1 “life sucks” despairing hostility alienated 2%
2 “my life sucks” apathetic victim separate 25%
3 “I’m great (and you’re not)” lone warrior personal 49%
4 “we’re great (and they’re not)” tribal pride partnership 22%
5 “life is great” innocent wonderment team 2%

Servant leadership & tribal leadership

In learning about tribal leadership, I wondered where (or even if) servant leadership fits in. The authors make no mention of it, and I have no idea if they know about it. But in going over things, and the aspects of leaders in the different stages, it seems clear to me that the leaders of stage 4 & 5 tribes are likely to be servant leaders. Servant leaders in stage 1, 2, 3 tribes would be working hard to get their tribe up to stage 4 & 5. Now, this doesn’t mean that a stage 4/5 leader is automatically a servant leader, but most likely they will be. If you read the book, it’s also clear that the “stage 3 boss” is a leader-first leader, the opposite of the servant leader.

As many of us are involved in large groups, this work has value. I first learned of it from Toastmasters when they ran an article in the August, 2011 issue of the “Toastmasters” magazine. And they had the main author speak at their International Convention in 2011 and they gave out copies to people. While the units we are involved in are usually too small to be tribes, we are part of VOAs, or district & council (and higher) committees that could be tribes. As I look around in many of my groups, I do see a lot of Stage 3 tribes. I do see attempts at creating Stage 4 tribes. And I see Stage 3 tribes that the boss is trying to disguise as Stage 4. This is actually something the authors warn about: the fake Stage 4.

An example of this is in the Rypple video. This quote was given: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead. I’ve heard it before and agree. I’ve seen great things done in many of the organizations I am part of, lead by people with a vision for something better. This is an example of a stage 4/5 leader. But author David Logan has this corollary: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtless, uncommitted people can prevent the world from changing. Indeed, they do so every day.” (he says that 70% of tribes do this.) And sadly, I’ve too often seen this. Someone trying to make a change, but is stopped by others in the organization because they lack the vision or want to come up with some reason to stop it or just don’t want change. What is especially sad is that too often the people doing the blocking wrap themselves in the rhetoric of the Stage 4 leader or a servant leader, which in my mind means they really don’t understand the concepts.

A great concept and I encourage all leaders to check it out.