On Tribal Leadership

I recently finished reading the book Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright. To begin the authors define a tribe as “a group between 20 and 150 people. Here’s the test for whether someone is in one of your tribes: if you saw her walking down the street, you’d stop and say “hello””. The continue: “Tribes in company get work done – sometimes a lot of work – but they don’t form because of work. Tribes are the basic building block of any large human effort, including earning a living. As such their influence is greater than that of teams, entire companies, and even superstar CEOs. In companies, tribes decide whether the new leader is going to flourish or get taken out. They determine how much work gets done, and of what quality.” The key question is then what makes the difference between tribes that excel and others that do not? The authors argue it is the presence of Tribal Leaders. The continue by defining what tribal leaders do: “Tribal Leaders focus their efforts on building the tribe – or more precisely, upgrading the tribal culture…Divisions and companies run by Tribal Leaders set the standard of performance in their industries, from productivity and profitability to employee retention. They are talent magnets, with people so eager to work for the leader that they will take a pay cut if necessary…Their efforts seem effortless, leaving may people puzzled by how they do it.  Many Tribal Leaders, if asked can’t articulate what they are doing that’s different, but after reading this book, you will be able to explain and duplicate their success.”

The book’s main focus after having defined the tribe and Tribal Leadership is to “give you perspective and tools of a Tribal Leader: someone who can unstick the conveyor belt – and make it run faster  for whole groups of people, no matter which stage they’re in. The result is more effective workplaces, greater strategic success, less stress, and more fun.” This conveyor belt is an analogy for what the authors define as the tribal stages 1 through 5. Each stage is characterized by certain language and behavior.

Stage 1: “The person at Stage One is alienated from others, expressing the view that “life sucks.”

Stage 2: “Stage Two people are surrounded by people who seem to have some power they lack. As a results, their language expresses “my life sucks.”

Stage 3: “The person at Stage Three is connected to others in a series of dyadic (two-person) relationships. the language of this stage expresses “I’m great,” and in the background – unstated – is “and you’re not.”

Stage 4: “The person forms structures called triads, in which they build values-based relationships between others. At the same time, the words of Stage Four people are centered on “we’re great” and, in the background, “and they’re not.” The “they” is another tribe – in the same company or in another.

Stage 5: “A person at Stage Five expresses “life is great.” Five shares the same characteristics of Four, except that there is no “they.” As a result, these people form ever-growing networks with anyone whose values resonate with their own. The only Stage Five cultures we have observed (in corporate settings) exists as long as a history-making project lasts or as long as the tribe is so far ahead of its competitors that they are irrelevant.”

Simply put the role of Tribal Leaders is “do two things: (1) listen for which cultures exist in their tribes and (2) upgrade those tribes using specific leverage points.”

A very interesting, educative and fun read. It helps one look at companies through a new viewpoint with a specific focus on the culture and relationships/dynamics within it. It is filled with practical real-life examples and applications and backed by substantial empirical research. Highly recommended!

Below are excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “People at Stage Three approach leadership as though it were a set of tasks they could check off their to-do list (e.g., “set the vision,” “get alignment,” and “listen with intention”). The moment leadership becomes cookie-cutter, it isn’t leadership at all – it’s management. By making the person aware that he’s behaving in a Stage Three fashion toward leadership, you might help him see that he isn’t a leader at all. This realization may propel him into the set of epiphanies of the next chapter.”

2- “…The two most important aspects of owning Stage Four: identifying and leveraging core values, and aligning on a noble cause. Everything else the tribe does should be sandwiched between these constructs. Projects, activities, initiatives, processes – unless they are fueled by values and reach toward the tribal vision – should either be rethought until they are consistent with these guiding principles, or pruned. By definition, core values and a noble cause can never be “checked off,” in the same way that companies complete an upgrade to computer technology.”

3- “…Values must be core, and that means universal…Second, the unity resulting from core cause and a noble cause must be alignment, not agreement…Alignment, to us, means bringing pieces into the same line – the same direction.”

4- “The Tribal Leadership Strategy Map: Start with core values and noble cause in the center, then move to outcomes and go counterclockwise around the model (assets and behaviors). Test Questions: Assets sufficient for the Outcomes? Enough assets for behaviors? Will behaviors accomplish outcomes?”

5- “An outcome, by contrast (to a goal), is  a present state of success that morphs into an even bigger victory over time.”

6- “A stage five tribe can work with any group that has a commitment to values that are core and that apply to everyone, even if those values are different from its own.”

7- “While Tribal Leaders do their work for the good of the group, not for themselves, they are rewarded with loyalty, hard work, innovation, and collaboration. The tribe gets work of higher quality done in less time. The person is often seen as a candidate for op organizational jobs or for positions in government.”


Omar Halabieh

Tribal Leadership

Tribal Leadership



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