Book Review: The Nature of the Tribe

Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization

Back Web Only Jun 9, 2015 By Michael Scott

We live in a world of tribes. On a macro level, we discover that every organization is a tribe, a cadre of people involved in formal and informal levels of engagement. The existence of these tribes has major implications for today’s leaders in their quest to create world-class teams, businesses and companies that make a difference.

When a professional colleague of mine recommended the book Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups To Build A Thriving Organization, I was skeptical. Back in the 80s, as a health care human resources executive, I suffered a toxic tribe: a work environment rife with political infighting that resulted from the organization’s declining financial fortunes. Thankfully, the book’s often humorous perspective on effectively navigating tribal landscapes and cultures softened my anxieties and helped redirect my leadership compass.

Tribal Leadership, oriented towards company leaders, delves into the intersection between tribal cultures and leadership, and their implications for both individual and organizational behavior. It explores ways to identify a tribe’s language and culture and how to build a collaborative network around that.

Recognition of the various stages of a tribe’s evolution can help leaders respond rather than react to the vicissitudes of workplace change they face on a daily basis. This strategic understanding of group dynamics then serves as the foundation necessary for sustainable growth and success   

Stage highlights include:

Stage One: Life Sucks. Best characterized as a collective cloud of misery and loathing, this stage finds team members engulfed in a hostile environment that leaves them feeling trapped in a cycle of endless despair. Backstabbing, scandals, theft and even violence can occur.

Stage Two: My Life Sucks. According to the authors, this is the dominant milieu of 25 percent of workplace cultures. A more deeply personalized version of stage one, stage two finds employees enmeshed in their own junk, resulting in apathy and antagonistic tendencies. Much of this is driven by a sense of being shackled to personal circumstances. With motivation low, they respond to organizational change with sarcasm and resistance.

Stage Three: I Am Great. The “ego-based lone warrior” is the predominant theme of this stage. The language being spoken here by an individual team member is “I’m better than everyone else.”

In reading about this stage, my thoughts immediately began to migrate to when Phil Jackson took the helm as head coach of the Chicago Bulls in the 90s. At the time, rising star Michael Jordan took it upon himself to carry entire games, as he feared his teammates wouldn’t know what to do with the ball if he shared it with them. Jackson encouraged the superstar to become a team player by sharing the ball liberally with his teammates. A new tribal culture evolved based on teamwork. This served as a catalyst for several world championships and a historic dynasty for this Bulls team.

Stage Four: We Are Great. This is the stage that the aforementioned Chicago Bulls evolved to. Here, the team takes on a deep, almost spiritualized espirit de corp, encompassing a “one for all, all for one, us against the world” mentality. This is where true success begins to take hold, ensuring a strong value-based sense of commitment to a cause.

Stage Five: Life Is Great. Tribal life hums with an effortless rhythm that is rarely achieved and seemingly for a short moment in time. Words which best describe this self-actualized stage: world-class, legacy and excellence.

Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs, and Oprah Winfrey are examples of leaders who have reached this level by championing a cause to unprecedented levels. And in the world of big business think Apple Computer, Southwest Airlines and the Ritz Carlton Hotel — companies that have reached a gold standard of excellence.

Tribal Leadership explores ways to identify a tribe’s language and culture and then instructs leaders on how to build a collaborative network around them. The end goal of the book is to help the reader build their leadership muscle by recognizing the DNA of the various tribal stages outlined. It is also a great primer for assessing the dynamics of others as we navigate our own personal quest. More information on the book is available online.