What Does Tribal Leadership Teach Us About Building Strong Communities and Organizations?

Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization (by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright).

Most people believe that innovation, quality and success is the product of great leadership. A ten year, 24,000 person study found that “tribes”, naturally forming groups of between 20-150 people, and not leaders, drive success in virtually all organizations.

I agree. I read Tribal Leadership earlier this year on a recommendation from Tony Hsieh. I believe that every leader – and everyone who wants to be a great leader – should read this book. Here’s what I wrote to the authors of the book:

“Immediately after I finished reading Tribal Leadership, I ordered multiple additional copies so that others at crowdSPRING could read it too. No non-fiction book has ever had such a profound impact on me.”

Great leaders understand their own limitations and know that it’s not easy to change cultures, especially in larger organizations. Gimmicks, “initiatives”, and massive cultural changes are often artificial and fall flat. Great leaders know that the only way to move the culture of an organization is to focus on groups – tribes – within those organizations.

While Tribal Leadership is about organizations, it’s lessons apply to social communities, including forums, Twitter, Facebook, and other social communities. I’ve personally applied those lessons to how I interact in social communities, including our own on crowdSPRING. I encourage everyone who is serious about social media to read this book.

The book describes the five stages of tribal culture. The stages are:

Stage 1 – “Life Sucks”. People in stage one believe that life sucks. Period. They believe that there is nothing the individual can do to fix problems. This type of culture is found in prisons and among gangs, but amazingly, also in two percent of corporate tribes.

Stage 2 – “My Life Sucks”. People in stage two know that life can be good, but believe that their life sucks. This stage represents 25 percent of all corporate culture. People in stage 2 blame others and rarely do anything voluntarily to help. If you’ve seen the television show The Office, you’ll see a good example of a stage 2 tribe. You’ll also know people around you who are stuck in this stage.

Stage 3 – “I’m Great”. Stage 3 is the dominant culture in companies in the United States. People in Stage 3 think “I’m great” but there’s a hidden statement that’s often left unsaid – “I’m great and you aren’t.” People in stage 3 are driven to win, but winning is personal. They view others, including teammates and those outside their organization, as their competitors. If you look around your organizations – and even at yourself – it’s highly likely that on most days –you and others are at stage 3. While stage 3 cultures can achieve great successes – stage 3 also leads to burnout. Microsoft has been operating in a stage 3 culture for a lengthy period of time.

Stage 4 – “We’re great”. This stage represents 22 percent of tribal cultures. This stage compares “our tribe ”against other tribes. Tribes at stage 4 collaborate and put the good of the tribe above the good of the individual.The tribes within Apple are at stage 4 much of the time. Tribes at stage 4 share information and build on each other’s success.

Stage 5 – “Life is great.” Only two percent of tribes fall in this stage. Tribes at this stage want to make history and have produced real innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was stage 5. Tribes operating at stage 5 are true leaders and true innovators.

Tribal Leadership offers real and meaningful insight into how leaders can help to move their tribes and individual members of their tribes, to the next stage. This insight is extremely valuable. Let me tell you why.

Immediately after I read the book, I modified, in significant ways, how I interacted with our team, with individual members on our team, and with our community. Many of these changes were minor but nonetheless had a major impact.

You are no doubt looking for specifics, so let me offer one. I’ve had over a decade of experience actively participating in many online communities. Most online communities are eventually impacted by internal conflict and strife as “troublemakers” in the community begin to aggravate everyone else. I’ve seen happy and strong communities fall apart as a result of this strife.

Prior to reading Tribal Leadership, when we saw that a user in our community posted negative comments, we would of course politely respond to those comments but also reach out to them privately and sternly (but politely) and ask them to not to engage in personal attacks (such as against other users).

After reading Tribal Leadership, I realized that our team could not properly scale what we were doing, and that without the help from others in the community, our community could not easily avoid the conflict that plagues most online communities. And so we applied the lessons from Tribal Leadership in finding ways to push people in our community from stage 2 thinking to stage 3, and from stage 3 to stage 4.

The results were astounding. We “turned” the troublemakers into valuable members of our community.  They have become real though leaders in our community, and now help us to push others to the next stage. We could not have grown our community without them.

Dave Logan, one of the authors, visited crowdSPRING a few months ago. I asked Dave how the lessons from the book applied to start-ups, remote teams, and social communities. Here’s what Dave had to say:

1. Tribal Leadership focuses on tribes of 20 to 150 people. How can start-ups and companies with smaller teams leverage the advice from the book?

“First of all, what looks like a group of people under 20 is almost always a tribe.  In our company, for example, we have four partners.  But by the time you add in our accountants (2), IP lawyer, book agents (2), publishers and related personnel (8), key clients (about 40), plus spouses/fiancées (4), advisors (5) etc., we’re up a mid-sized tribe.  Our advice to a group truly smaller than 20 is get bigger fast.  A company, even a small one, needs more horsepower than a handful of people can produce. That said, the dynamics in teams are very similar to tribes.  The difference is that teams are small enough that people’s behaviors sometimes mold to fit group process.”

2. Some companies have disparate teams who rarely meet in person. What special challenges do such teams face in elevating their culture to succeed?

“ We work with many companies that have teams (or tribes) that are scattered around the globe, work in different time zones, and in some cases, speak versions of English that are more different than similar.  Even in these extreme cases, tribal dynamics work just the same.  If possible, we advise bringing the groups together for a strategy session in which people assess their culture (on the 1-5 scale) and construct short-term projects that will accomplish important aims.  Then working remotely works much better.”

3. What technology companies today operate at the highest levels of performance? What’s their secret?

“The big differences in great technology companies compared to other “normal” companies are: (1) they tend to be young—hence not as bureaucratic; (2) they employ smart people who can think in terms of systems; and (3) they have an objective that has an element of nobility to it.  Think of Apple integrating technological platforms through elegant design, or Zappos changing the world one phone call at a time. The danger for companies that don’t have these three characteristics is that they put rules ahead of results, form silos that seem more important than the company, and often have people working just for the paycheck.  Those are the ingredients for mediocrity. “

4. What three steps can a leader take today to begin improving their team?

“#1: identify the natural clusters of people—who work together.
#2: assess the cultural stage of those clusters
#3: move them to the next stage”

[Note: strategies for helping to move people to the next stage are in Appendix A of the book.]

5. Tribal Leadership talks about organizational teams. Do these lessons apply to “tribes” in social communities online?

“Yes, the same dynamics work online.  The only difference is the upper limit of 150 people gets a little mushy as on-line communities can get very large.  But still, our ability to form meaningful relationships with people caps out in the 200 range.  But as technology does more of the work for us, this upper limit will continue to move.”

If you want to learn a bit more, you can watch this six minute video in which Dave Logan talks about Tribal Leadership and the five stages:

If you haven’t read Tribal Leadership, I strongly encourage you to do so. You can buy a copy at Amazon. Zappos recently released a free audio version that you can download here.