• Dave Logan, John King & Halee Fischer-Wright
  • April 14, 2021
    Read, recorded or researched
This book is the result of a ten-year field study of twenty-four thousand people in two dozen organizations. The authors learned that what separates average tribes from those that excel is culture, and that culture exists in stages from one to five. Phil Jackson, the former coach of the Chicago Bulls observed that this framework is the best he's come across for understanding world-class teams.

The Best Points

Tribal Leadership


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Anatomy of a Tribe

  • A tribe is any group of people between about 20 and 150 who know each other enough that, if they saw each other walking down the street, would stop and say “hello.”
  • They are likely people in your cell phone and in your e-mail address book.
  • A small company is a tribe, and a large company is a tribe of tribes.

Five Stages of Culture

Stages of Tribal Leadership
Adapted from Tribal Leadership
  • Every tribe has a dominant culture, which we can peg on a one-to-five scale, with Stage Five being most desirable. All things being equal, a Five culture will always outperform a Four culture, which will outperform a Three, and so on.
  • Fortunately, most professionals skip Stage One (only about 2 percent of American professionals operate here at any given point), which is the mind-set that creates street gangs and people who come to work with shotguns.
  • In 25 percent of workplace tribes, the dominant culture is Stage Two, which is a quantum leap from Stage One. People operating at Stage Two use language centered on “my life sucks.” People in this cultural stage are passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they’ve seen it all before and watched it all fail. There is little to no innovation and almost no sense of urgency, and people almost never hold one another accountable for anything. Most large companies have pockets of Stage Two, often divisions that don’t have an impact on strategy or direction.
  • The theme of Stage Three, the dominant culture in 49 percent of workplace tribes in the United States, is “I’m great.” Or, more fully, “I’m great, and you’re not.” Within the Stage Three culture, knowledge is power, so people hoard it, from client contacts to gossip about the company. People at Stage Three have to win, and for them winning is personal.
  • The gulf between “I’m great” (Stage Three) and “we’re great” (Stage Four) is huge, Grand Canyon huge. This level represents 22 percent of workplace tribal cultures, where the theme of people’s communication is “we’re great.” A “we’re great” tribe always has an adversary—the need for it is hardwired into the DNA of this cultural stage. In fact, the full expression of the theme is “we’re great, and they’re not.” Often, it’s another group within the company.
  • Stage Four is a launching pad for Stage Five. Stage Five accounts for just under 2 percent of workplace cultures. It’s marked by “life is great” language, devoid of any competitor. It’s not that competitors don’t exist; it’s that they don’t matter. Values, which are important at Stage Four, are vital—a word literally meaning “life-giving.” Without them, the tribal culture would collapse to Four and keep falling. A noble cause—critical at Stage Four—is the group’s only compass. If we look closely, however, we see that their commitment to values has shifted to (or perhaps always was) resonant values. They often refer to their corporate, political, or organizational tribe in the same way many of us think of our hometown—it will always be home, but we have outgrown it.

Tribal Leadership focuses on two things, and only two things: the words people use and the types of relationships they form. Tribal Leadership is not about changing ideas or gaining knowledge; it is about changing language and relationships. It’s not about intellectualizations; it’s about actions.

Moving a person from one stage to the next means intervening in a certain way to help this person change her language and set up different types of relationships. As that happens to one person and then another, the entire tribe goes through a change as a new cultural stage becomes dominant.

Stage 3 in Detail – Trapped by the System

People in Stage three tend to show a string of successes, where they have been recognized as the best and the brightest, and yet they've become frustrated with the system in which they excel.

The essence of Stage Three is “I’m great.” Unstated and lurking in the background is “and you’re not.” Ask people at this stage how they see work, and you hear: “I’m good at my job,” “I try harder than most,” “I’m more able than most,” and “Most people can’t match my work ethic.” The key words are “I,” “me,” and “my.”

People entering Stage Three express insecurity with their positions, their gifts, and their colleagues, which is a leftover from Stage Two. For people at “I’m great,” this fear fuels their drive to perform. At a training program in Cancun, after several days of getting to know one another, we ran an experiment that Abraham Maslow suggested in his writings. We asked people to write their greatest fear on a piece of paper, fold it up, and toss it in a basket. Of the thirty or so successful executives, most with MBAs from top schools, every person said some variant of “I’m afraid they’re going to find out I’m not as good as they think.” This experiment marks the difference between Stages Two and Three. At “my life sucks,” this same insecurity freezes people into inaction and comes out as “I’m only as good as my performance, and I don’t put in my best.” For this group of highly accomplished individuals in Cancun, fear came out as an “I’ll show everyone I can do it” spunk.

We asked Steve Sample, president of the University of Southern California, about his view of Stage Three. He said, “In a university, it can be very helpful to have people focused on their accomplishment. The individual genius can go a long way.” Reflecting on his other role as an accomplished engineer with several patents, he added, “It [Stage Three] is that way in engineering, too.” People operating at Stage Three win Nobel Prizes and major awards or become best-selling novelists, he added. Some environments are set up for people at Stage Three, and this behavior leads to organizational success.

Inherent in Stage Three is the view that people are where they are because they worked for it, and others aren’t there because they gave up.

When he finished his residency at Harvard, Dr. Koyle assumed—as did so many in our study—that his hard work, natural talent, and dedication would result in greater and greater levels of success. “I assumed at the time that I would be catapulted to the position of chairman of surgery.” Instead, he’s chairman of a smaller department. What went wrong? “The system rewards the wrong things,” he told us, echoing the views of literally thousands of people in our studies. While people in the stories we collected all hit different obstacles, the net result was the same: no matter how talented they were, or how hard they worked, their efforts were thwarted by decisions that appeared unilateral and narrow-minded.

Many people at the middle of Stage Three become so good at fighting and winning that it’s no longer a challenge, and their interests naturally drift to another outlet. Some seek outside stimulation. Dr. Koyle has looked at ways to use his intelligence and hard work to become successful outside of the system he thinks is broken.

A move to late Stage Three often comes as people hit age forty or experience a personal loss. Whether the move to late Stage Three comes through tragedy or maturity, it often manifests itself by a desire to give back.

The Tribal Leaders we met had all gone through Stage Three, including learning how to outmaneuver others and win at political games. Before moving out of Stage Three, it’s important to own it, to the point where you’re done playing the game this way—not because it’s hard but because you’re ready for what’s next.

People at Stage Three like to hire those at Stage Two, or others at Three who aren’t as accomplished as they are, so they can dominate the Stage Two position. Stage Three, to be successful, needs people at Stage Two to do the work, but this lower cultural stage will never produce the passion or initiative necessary to provide full support. As a result, people at Stage Three often say, “I don’t get enough support.”

The net of these signs is that people at Stage Three report, almost universally, that they don’t have enough time, don’t get enough support, and are surrounded by people less able and dedicated than they are. No matter how hard they work, they can’t punch through the barrier of a day that has only twenty-four hours. They’ve hit the point of diminishing returns, so the harder they work, the less effective they are, and the less their efforts seem to matter. Simply put, they want to get to the next level but don’t know how to get there, or even what the next level looks like.

Stage 4 in detail - Positive-sum

Having interviewed thousands of people who have made it into Stage Four, the zone of Tribal Leadership, we discovered that every person had an awakening.

The epiphany begins with noticing that people haven’t achieved what they thought, that victories they thought were tribal are only personal. Many people told us, in exactly these words: “My impact is far less than I thought,” “I thought I was winning, but it was all about me,” and “I didn’t do a thing that mattered!”

As the epiphany continues, people often try to achieve group victories using Stage Three behavior, which never works. People eventually see that the goal of Stage Three—winning on a personal basis—is self-defeating. Tribal successes, by contrast, are enduring and satisfying for everyone.

Most people notice that power is a zero-sum game in Stage Three: the more you take from others, the more you have and the less others have. By contrast, power in Stage Four is abundant: the more you give to others, the more you get back.

The last epiphany is seeing that the only real goal is the betterment of the tribe. Ironically, as people act to build the tribe they achieve everything they sought but couldn’t achieve at Stage Three: esteem, respect, loyalty, legacy, and enduring success.

Whether to stay with Stage Three or advance to Four is the single most important question for individuals and corporations around the world. As one of our research subjects recounted the story of his epiphany, we asked what advice he would give to people still in the “wild, wild west” aspect of Stage Three. His answer summarized our research and was in line with that of other experts we interviewed:

“I would ask what their goal is. If it’s to win, keep on doing it. If it’s to make a larger impact, how do you create relationships to get what it is you want them to do? You can’t do it by yourself; you have to work with others.”

Moving from Stage 3 to 4

Core Values

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, and 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. A value such as “integrity” or “innovation” is timeless, and a noble cause is so far-reaching that even with technical breakthroughs, it will never be fulfilled.

What is a core value?

“a principle without which life wouldn’t be worth living”.

And why are they so important? As one ex-military leader told us,

“Get a group of special forces people, separate them, ask each one the same questions, and you’ll get roughly the same answers from each. Values uniformity goes a long way to building effective teams. Bullets are flying; they don’t have time to debate. They have to react in similar ways.”

When a tribe commits to values, it makes those principles superior to the edicts of executives and managers. One of the pitfalls we caution company leaders to avoid is to identify values and then make decisions based on expediency, as if the values didn’t exist. Such behavior depresses a culture, often all the way down to Stage Two, and creates a perception that values are created for the employees while executives are above the law.

When a leader begins talking about everyone’s values, as opposed to individuals discussing “my values”, tribal magic happens. It reminds us of alchemy, when people searched for a way to turn lead into gold. In a sense, the moment when Tribal Leaders can speak to the members of the tribe about the tribe itself, a group of individuals gels, a common identity forms, and people dedicate themselves to the success of the group. This is what we call tribal alchemy—the first vision of Stage Three melting into Stage Four.

A serious commitment to values requires courage. Most of what employees told us about values is that executives publish a set of values, often derived from a consulting company and looking remarkably like every other list of values, as “our values.” And yet, in the minds of employees, don’t follow them when faced with a tough situation.

The single most important takeaway from Stage Four is that Tribal Leaders follow the core values of the tribe no matter what the cost.

Noble Cause

If core values are the fuel of a tribe, a noble cause is the direction where it’s headed. A noble cause captures the tribe’s ultimate aspiration. Said differently, core values are what we “stand in” and a noble cause is what we “shoot for.”

That’s the point of a noble cause: it sidesteps what people say can’t work and finds a way for it to work. Said more technically, a noble cause leads to people “aligning” – there’s an important distinction here between alignment and agreement.

Alignment, to us, means bringing pieces into the same line—the same direction. The metaphor is that a magnet will make pieces of iron point toward it. Agreement is shared intellectual understanding. Tribes are clusters of people, and people are complex and nonrational at times. If a tribe is united only by agreement, as soon as times change, agreement has to be reestablished.

From our research, there are two ways to set a noble cause. First, keep asking “in service of what?”

The second technique to setting a noble cause is to ask what we call the Big Four Questions. As we watched Tribal Leaders do their work, we noted that they tended to ask,

  • “What’s working well?”
  • “What’s not working?”
  • “What can we do to make the things that aren’t working, work?”
  • “Is there anything else?”

These questions capture a group’s current assessment of its situation and its aspirations about what should change and why. A Stage Four culture goes through the process of figuring out its highest aspirations and develops a sound bite that captures the discussion.

With only a few exceptions, Stage Four organizations don’t print values and the noble cause on the backs of employee badges, emblazen them on company mugs, or hang them on the bulletin board next to the cafeteria menu. Instead, leaders talk about them, base decisions on them, and engage tribal members in discussions about what they mean. The advice from our research is simple: build the noble cause into ongoing communication, and don’t resort to gimmickry.

Every Stage Four tribe we studied did regular “tribal maintenance”—airing grievances, ensuring alignment between activities and the touchstones of values and a noble cause, and deepening people’s relationships. We came to term this process an “oil change,” and we recommend that tribes schedule it at least once a quarter. The oil change is a chance for tribal members to revisit what’s happened, understand events from all sides, resolve issues, and remove any process, system, or habit that’s inconsistent with its values and noble cause. People report that an oil change “made me fall in love with my coworkers all over again” and “reminds me why I love working here.”

Toward the end of our conversation with Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, he said, “I don’t know if you read Steve Job’s commencement speech at Stanford that went around the Internet.” The comic edge to his voice was gone. “I didn’t get him until that. He had a weird ability to influence people, and I read this and said, ‘This may be one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life.’ It completely changed how I felt the entire day. I thought, if you can, through your choice of words, make people feel different, and it even lasts awhile, you can change everything. You can get the best out of other people.”

While the efforts of such exceptional leaders cannot be reduced to a formula, they do share characteristics of finding shared values, aligning on a noble cause, establishing triadic relationships, and building a strategy to make history. Without realizing it, Adams had given us one the best descriptions of Tribal Leaders we’ve ever heard: using words to get the best out of people, to change everything.

Triadic Relationships

Tribal leaders receive loyalty and followership by creating relationships between other people. They are successful because their actions build triads, the foundation of a Stage Four tribal structure.  

Dyads—two-person relationships—are the structural hallmark of Stage Three. People operating at “I’m great” tend to form a set of dyads, so that if they have to tell lots of people the same thing, they’ll have a series of one-on-one conversations. As a result, they hit several barriers.

  • First, the person at the other end of the relationship often feels commoditized, valued only for her service or information.
  • Second, the person forming the dyads feels he never has enough time or support, since the overhead maintenance required to keep a series of dyads together is enormous.
  • Third, people are quick to spot inconsistencies in what the person says as he tells slightly different versions of the same thing to others, which damages his credibility and reduces their loyalty to him.

In the same way that ego shifts from personal to tribal at Stage Four, we don’t see many dyads, but we see lots of triads. Why? Because when you connect two other people to form a “triad”, based on core values and mutual self-interest, you receive the reciprocal benefit of this action by others saying good things about you. In essence, you receive loyalty and followership by creating relationships between other people.

Also, when you bring two people with common values together, you get the benefit of having created the relationship but you don’t need to be involved for the relationship to progress. You earn the benefits of a relationship you created. So, next time you go to Starbucks, take two friends, not one. Once people see the value in a group of three, they often make three the minimum number for a meeting. Our clients have told us that it’s changed their entire corporate tribes.

How do you get the most out of triads? From our research, we’ll offer four pointers.

  • First, know the values and current projects of every person in your network. There’s no shortcut for knowing who is in your tribe, what’s important to them, and what they’re doing.
  • Second, use what LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman describes as “the theory of small gifts.” Before facilitating an introduction between two people, you have to have the credibility with both to pull it off. Hoffman describes the need for this practice to be systematic and ongoing: “Do little things for each person,” such as sending them an article that is about one of their interests, remembering their birthday, and so on.
  • Third, be great at something, world-class if possible. We’re often asked by people at Stage Two how they can triad with people who won’t even return their calls. The answer is that they first have to go through Stage Three and become great at something, just as Kelley and his two Stanford colleagues all entered, and then graduated from, Stage Three. If someone hasn’t owned Stage Three yet, world-class triading will be impossible.
  • Finally, there was a point in our research at which we believed that if people at Stage Three were to triad, they would automatically grow into Stage Four. We were wrong. Unless someone has had the epiphany of Tribal Leadership, triading looks like thinly veiled self-promotion. Effective triading requires a word that we heard people use again and again to describe real Tribal Leaders: “authenticity.”

Important side note. At Stage Four, people assume trust; they don’t earn it. At Stage Three, trust is earned. When lost, it has to be re-earned. At Stage Four, we observed a different phenomenon: people granted trust from the beginning. In fact, when we tried to set up meetings with people at Stage Three, many rebuffed us because they didn’t know who we were. By contrast, many of the remarkable people interviewed for this book—those at Stages Four and Five—assumed we were who we said we were and granted us an interview because they said the project sounded important. The principle is this: where trust is an issue, there is no trust. Stage Four assumes trust. Stage Three says trust must be earned.

Tribal Strategy

Once values and a noble cause are set, tribal strategy involves three conversations.

  • The first is “what we want,” or outcomes.
  • The second is “what we have,” or assets.
  • The third is “what we will do,” or behaviors.

Many strategies go sideways by having two or even all three conversations at the same time—or skipping one of them completely. It’s imperative that the Tribal Leader keep these three discussions separate.

Once the tribe has set its strategy based on values and its noble cause, firmed up its outcomes, surveyed its assets, gotten specific about behaviors, and tested whether the three major parts connect, it will most often have a palpable sense of excitement. If the tribe was on the border between Stages Three and Four, this process usually pushes it over the top into “we’re great.”

People will begin networking (through triads) to fulfill this dynamic, and they will actively bypass people who refuse to budge off Stage Three behavior. Every member of the tribe knows exactly how to succeed and what each person must do to make the tribe effective. That’s the promise of tribal strategy.