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