Sunday, October 12, 2008

Review: Tribal Leadership

I just finished the book Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan et al.  It's one of the better leadership books I've run across.  The authors stress the need for leadership to develop a "we" culture instead of an "I" culture.  The authors call this a stage 4 culture and the leadership style Tribal Leadership.  The advantage of moving to a culture that embraces group success over individual success is the ability to accomplish more.  A group of individuals acting as induhviduals cannot reach the heights that a group acting in concert can.

The authors identify five group cultures:

Stage 1 - Life Sucks - People in stage one believe that all of life sucks.  The world is oppressive and there is nothing the individual can do to fix it.  This is the culture most likely to be found in prison or the projects.  It is not something seen often in corporate life.

Stage 2 - My Life Sucks - People in stage two acknowledge that life can be good, just theirs isn't.  The blame is externalized.  Something is in the way of their success.  It might be their manager or the company's rules.  Stage two is marked by complaining, but not action.  Employees in a stage two company will form bonds of shared oppression.  If you've seen The Office, you've seen a stage two culture in action.

Stage 3 - This is much of corporate America today.  People in Stage 3 say "I'm great" and mean "I'm great and you aren't."  Stage three is all about individual excellence.  People in this stage can produce amazing results, but it is tiring.  Everything is a struggle against those less excellence than one's self.   Power is hoarded.  Help is unidirectional.  People at stage three tend to burn out because every success take such great personal investment.  This is the hero culture typical of companies like Microsoft for much of its history.

Stage 4 - "We're great" is the mantra of stage four.  The corollary is "You are not."  Cultures at this stage work together--putting the good of the group above the good of the individual--against a common foe.   This might be Apple's operating system group against Microsoft or the Live Search team as it comes together to take on Google.  Cultures at Stage 4 can operate more efficiently because they can share information and build upon each others' successes.  People are happy about the success of others instead of being jealous.

Stage 5 - "Life is great."  This is stage 4 without the common foe.  It is working together for the betterment of mankind (or some such) without the need of a common foe to unite the tribe.

The book focuses primarily on the Stage 4 culture and the leadership style necessary to achieve it.  It should be noted that the "Tribal Leadership" style of these authors is very similar to the "Level 5 Leader" described in the book Good to Great.  Stage Four cultures and leaders exhibit the following behaviors:

  1. A desire to work together.  To get to stage 4, you have to have gone through stage 3 and become disenchanted with the limitations of personal success.
  2. Shared core values.  People must be on the same page.  It is important that each member of the group be able to make decisions in line with all the others.  Having a shared set of values enables this.  Each decision can be reached by asking "What do our values have to say about this situation?" and following  where that leads. 
  3. A "noble cause."  The group needs a shared goal.  If core values are how a company operates, a noble cause is what it shoots for.  The authors say this cause must be "noble" but I'm not convinced it does. Any shared vision that all are bought into would seem to do.  Noble is, of course, better than ignoble. 
  4. The use of "triads."  Communication should be decentralized.  Imagine the situation where a manager is trying to coordinate the work of two employees--Jane and John.  If the manager goes to John and then takes that information to Jane, this is an example of 2 dyadic relationships.  Manager::John and Manager::Jane.  Instead, the manager should encourage John and Jane to work together or perhaps for the three of them to meet together.  This sort of communication does not happen in a stage 3 culture because knowledge is power and having knowledge flow through you is a way to concentrate said power.
  5. Using values and cause to work toward an outcome.  Actions must be informed by the values toward the cause.

A recent management talk I attended made the point that leaders set direction and then let their employees determine the best path toward success.  The job of the leader is to set the direction, align the team members around that direction, set the values for the group, and then be responsible for the growth of the team.  This sounds a lot like Tribal Leadership.

The end of the book feels a little utopian, but if you ignore the final chapter, there's a lot of useful ideas here.


  1. Indeed! That's a Great Leadership Book :) You'll know things that will help you become successful.

  2. Great review, Steve.
    Did you see that the free audio version just came out? The philosophy outlined in Tribal

  3. I interviewed one of the authors and used your blog as a reference:

  4. Thanks Andrew.  I'll be sure to check out your interview.