The concept of Tribal Leadership

Let me just jump to it, what is Tribal Leadership? Well, perhaps it’s better to start with “what is a tribe?”. A tribe, as defined by Seth Godin in “Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us”, is any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, connected to a leader and connected to an idea. Most of us are members in several tribes. I am a member of my family tribe as well as a member of various social tribes. I’m also a member of a basketball tribe, the metal head tribe and the gadget-loving tribe. I was also a member of different business tribes. With each tribe, I shared a common set of values and believes. Sometimes these common values and believes drove the tribe towards a collective goal that served as a bigger purpose for the tribe, and in some special cases it even served as a noble cause. These were the best tribes of my life, for the obvious reasons related to the ultimate pursuit of happiness, and when it comes to business, it brought innovation, efficiency, productivity and profitability. It’s like one of those great movies that win both, the reviews from critics and the box-office sales.

OK, now we can talk about “what is Tribal Leadership?”. This is a concept that defines tribes into five different kinds. They are formed as five stages, as defined by Dave Logan. The first stage is the worst and the fifth is the best – it’s that simple. The five stages are:

Stage One: A Dog-Eat-Dog World

This is the lowest stage, the one in which “street gangs” and correctional institutions operate. Stage One tribe members believe “Life sucks”, the odds are stacked against them and they are helpless in a hostile world. At Stage One, tribe members believe that life is awful; they feel paranoid and helpless. Think of The Count of Monte Cristo and the jail he had to break out from.

Stage Two: They’re Out to Get Me

Individuals at this level believe, “My life sucks”. A member of a tribe at Stage Two believes his or her individual life is terrible but is willing to work to improve it. They are cynical and disengaged; they complain but offer no solutions. Approximately 25% of tribes are stuck at Stage Two, where individuals are passively antagonistic. They generally behave in a reactive manner and try to dodge responsibility while they perceive themselves as victims. Think of Molenbeek, Brussels’ most notorious neighborhood and Europe’s jihadi base that produced the terrorists who executed the latest attacks on Paris.

Stage Three: Nobody Appreciates What I Do

This large cohort accounts for 49% of tribes. At Stage Three, tribe members cultivate “two-person relationships”, compete against others, and believe, “I’m great, and you’re not”. Many members of Stage Three tribes are high achievers who have to win, and for them winning is personal. They’ll outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. The mood that results is a collection of “lone warriors”. Most groups and people, however accomplished, remain stuck at Stage Three. Think of France during the revolution from 1789 till 1799 before Napoleon took power and how internal battles led to serious threats to its borders.

Stage Four: Where Leadership Starts to Happen

The 22% of tribes working at this level are dedicated to the overriding conviction that “We’re great, and they’re not”. Proud of their tribe, members compete with other tribes, not each other. This kind of tribe requires a strong adversary, and the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe. The person who identifies the tribe’s chief competitor often emerges as the Tribal Leader. Now think of France during the first few years after Napoleon took charge of the country and the achievements made in the educational and constitutional systems, in addition to the military victories.

Stage Five: Magic 

Once a tribe reaches Stage Four, it might be able to reach the rare Stage Five. At this level, a tribe’s mantra is “Life is great”. These highly evolved groups discard the need to compete and strive solely for the “innocent wonderment” of discovery and accomplishment. Fewer than 2% of tribes operate at Stage Five, which can be achieved only if the tribe is already firmly grounded in Stage Four. Do you have a personal example you can insert here?

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So what do tribal leaders do? Firstly, they understand at which stage their tribe is. This is about knowing the members of the tribe and what they stand for or what impact they aim to achieve. They ask “what is the dominant culture” and “what are the core values of the tribe?”. More importantly, they ask “is there a higher purpose that the tribe can unite behind?”.

Secondly, tribal leaders create the perfect conditions that allows their tribes to move towards Stage Five. In the bible of Tribal Leadership (Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright), the authors argue that Tribal Leadership focuses on two things, and two things only: the words people use (to describe themselves, their jobs and others) and the types of relationships they form. Isn’t this the essence of culture? This again reinforces the idea that leadership is predominantly about the culture you create and how you connect people to each other.

I highly recommend this TED talk by David Logan where he brings the concept up with many life examples that represent the different stages of Tribal Leadership. The book, which I described earlier as the bible of Tribal Leadership, is more business-focused where examples are extracted from the corporate world. The Authors demonstrate how these tribes develop and show you how to assess them and lead them to maximize productivity and growth. It will teach you how tribes and proficient Tribal Leadership can help you work and play well with others and bolster your career.

May I also recommend a different kind of book? It is called (Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success) by Phil Jackson, the legendary basketball head coach who has won more championships than any coach in the history of professional sports. His book portrays his journey to six championships with the Chicago Bulls and five with the LA Lakers and coaching the very special talents of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. He describes how he employed the concept of Tribal Leadership to understand which stage his team was at and to push them to Stage Four then to Stage Five. I believe it’s a great leadership book and also it’s a fantastic read about basketball!

I’ll leave you with these 2 quotes:

“Without the leaders building the tribe, a culture of mediocrity will prevail. Without an inspired tribe, leaders are impotent.” 

Dave Logan

“As a leader your job is to do everything in your power to create the perfect conditions for success by benching your ego and inspiring your team to play the game the right way. But at some point, you need to let go and turn yourself over to the basketball gods. The soul of success is surrendering to what is.” 

Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings

Tarek Beram

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