Tribal Leadership—A New Level of Engagement

Embracing tribal leadership is about being part of something bigger than any individual leader or employee could ever achieve. Organizations are complex, and every employee—no matter position—is a valuable contributor to the entire whole.

In their book, “Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization,” Dave Logan and his co-authors, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright, introduce the concept of tribal leadership—where each organization has an existing culture based on tribes of employees.

A tribe is a group of 20 to 150 people who connect naturally and who tend to gravitate toward each other based on common beliefs and views. According to the authors, members of a tribe are not necessarily part of the same team but rather are categorized based on their “stage.” Each tribe stage is based on shared values, mindset, and work ethic. Some tribes are motivated by making a meaningful contribution, while others just want to get through the day and collect a paycheck.

Here are the 5 Stages of Tribal Culture:

  • Stage 1: Life Sucks. A rare population that includes gang members and prisoners. Whereas some might assume there is “no hope” for this group, tribal leadership fundamentally believes everyone can be inspired to change and aspire to contribute in a meaningful manner.
  •  Stage 2: My Life Sucks. Built around a victim mentality where the individual members, as well as the collective, feel disempowered, overpowered, and bitter. Personal responsibility and accountability are rarely found in this tribe/stage.
  • Stage 3: I’m Great (and You’re Not). Self-motivated, ambitious people who often are looking out for themselves and their own interests. This level is motivated by competition and surpassing others.
  • Stage 4: We’re Great. The group is the strongest of the list. At this stage, individuals truly value the identity they have from being part of this tribe and are not interested in personal agendas or politics; their mantra is, “what is best for the greater whole.”
  • Stage 5: Life is Great. An extremely rare tribe where groups of individuals operating at this level have created miraculous innovations that have changed the world. This stage is truly all about realizing full potential for the individuals, their tribe, and, of course, the organization.

So what impact would leaders have incorporating tribal leadership and its concepts into their culture?

Each tribe has its own culture, and because the organization is the sum of its tribes, tribes naturally affect the overall organizational culture. Therefore, if the majority of employees are operating at Stage 2, no doubt there are performance and employee motivation challenges. Whereas if you have most of your employees operating at Stage 3, performance and self-motivation may be high, but morale may be super low.

Cultures that operate at Stage 2 and Stage 3 tend to have employees whose main focus is survival—doing what they need to do to keep their jobs and/or undercutting others to get ahead. Organizations that operate at these levels first must accept where the majority of their employees are, and then inventory the mindsets and behaviors that make up each of these tribal stages.

Leadership sets the organizational culture goals and must decide what tribal stages will yield results. If the organization aspires to Stage 4 and Stage 5 employees, what is the true motivation for this cultural upgrade? Organizations that operate at the higher levels are not only committed to being known as great places to work but also are committed to giving their employees a voice and allowing their ideas and innovations to be heard.

Embracing tribal leadership is about being part of something bigger than any individual leader or employee could ever achieve. Organizations are complex, and every employee—no matter position—is a valuable contributor to the entire whole.

Employees who are led by tribal leaders experience work on a deeper level, as these leaders know how to adapt their communication style to meet people where they are, rather than where the leader expects them to be. When employees feel a leader “gets them” and connects with them, they are more apt to trust this leader and want to emulate his or her habits and behaviors. When leaders are trusted, they can inspire individuals and their tribes to rise to new levels. Inspiration comes in many forms, including exposing employees to individuals performing at higher levels and demonstrating what is possible.

Tribal leadership is truly a transformational strategy where the organization begins to understand its employees at a much deeper level—and employees feel connected to the organization at a deeper level, too. By listening and understanding what makes individual talent tick, based on the tribe they belong to, leaders uncover what will motivate and inspire them to rise to new levels and make greater contributions, as well.

Tribal leadership has far-reaching organizational impact—the key is to make sure your organization is ready for some miraculous game-changing ideas, innovations, and employee engagement that is off the charts.

Brenda Stanton is vice president of Keystone Partners, whose expertise addresses career transition and outplacement, career management, executive career transition services, executive coaching and leadership development, talent assessment, team effectiveness, and training.