Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization

First up, the full disclosure. I got a free review copy from the promoter of Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization. I’m pretty sure they offered me the review copy because of the review I did of Tony Hsieh’s Delivery Happiness.  I also want to say that I don’t normally read business management books as such and won’t be discussing it from that kind of angle, but I was interested in Tribal Leadership from a group dynamics angle.  In the course of my career, from my first gig teaching in Japan and writing about Japanese culture, to my graduate studies at ITP studying with the likes of Clay Shirky, and to my work today as a social innovation designer, I am interested in how groups work and how they succeed at being creative and producing social value.

For a more in-depth summary of Tribal Leadership, check out Wikipedia.  The basic point the authors Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright make is that tribes are the basic units of any organization, and tribes are at one of five different stages.

The five tribal stages are:

Stage 1: Tribal members exist in a state of alienation from goals beyond mere survival. They use language to describe their place in the world that asserts that life in general is unfair, perhaps resembling Thomas Hobbes’ imagery of “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In short, “Life Sucks!”

Stage 2: Tribal members exist in a state of victimization. They use language that describes their place in the world that suggest that they are powerless and oppressed by forces outside their control. In short, “My life sucks.”

Stage 3: Tribal members exist in a state of self-aggrandizing competition. They use language that describes their place in the world as great by virtue of the fact that they have won positions of status and power. In short, “I am great, because you are not!”

Stage 4: Tribal members exist in a state of mutual cooperation around a common goal, which is typically characterized by competing against other competitor organizations. They use language that describes their place in the world as meaningful because they are positively contributing to achieving outcomes valued by the tribe by cooperating with other members of the tribe. In short, “We are great (because they are not)!”

Stage 5: Tribal members exist in a state of flow. They use language that describes their place in the world as intrinsically meaningful and focused on the good of the universe. In short, “Life is Great!”

Each stage has a predominant mood that describes the quality and the core value of the relationships between tribe members.

At Stage 1: members are alienated from each other, and the relationships are undermining.

At Stage 2: members are separate from each other, and the relationships are ineffective.

At Stage 3: there is typically personal domination of one member over others, and relationships are developed for their usefulness

At Stage 4: stable partnerships are attained, as relationships are deemed important. A tribe member is successful only if all members are successful.

At Stage 5: a team of stable partnerships exists, and relationships are vital.

Tribal Leadership is an easy read with anecdotes and actionable synthesis points for any leader who wants to move their organization up to a higher stage.  I would also recommend it to anyone interested in group dynamics.  In my work at Purpose, I have been particularly interested in how the culture has developed and evolved as we have rapidly grown from a 5-person operation to a 40-person+ company.  One of our challenges is maintaining and cultivating a creative and mission driven culture as we get bigger and more diverse.  I will definitely be sharing this book around the office.  But before I do that, I feel like I need to live with Tribal Leadership a bit longer so I can digest and synthesize it, so it will be living on my nightstand for before bed perusing for a few more days.

A big part of thriving organizational cultures is making strong connections, both between people and between ideas.  Here are some connections I made while I was reading Tribal Leadership.  I also happened to be reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. In chapter 6, of Finding Flow, Csikszentmihaly talks about relationships and the quality of life, and also highlights the importance of interconnectedness with a group.  Reading both Tribal Leadership and Finding Flow have been helping me better understand how the actualized individual fits in and interacts with the thriving tribe.  To be better connected as groups, we need to let down some of our own personal barriers and become vulnerable.  As Brené Brown puts it in her TEDxHouston talk on wholehearteness and vulnerability, “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen.”  Another TED talk to check out in this vein is Steven Johnson’s talk about where good ideas come from.  In Johnson’s view, good ideas and creativity are combinatorial and require cross-pollination that arises from environments with a certain degree of social density and diversity.  These kinds of environments can be cultivated, and Tribal Leadership can be part of the equation.

Since I am writing this post on the Fourth of July, I would like to conclude with an image from the time of the founding of the United States (before I head out to a BBQ and maybe the beach).  For me, it’s a poignant symbol of group unity, which is necessary for survival itself.  Join, or die.

Get the book on Amazon: Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization