The Tribal Leadership Ladder: Self-Reflect to Have an Effect

Vibrant war paint, wooden huts, guttural chants… Do these things come to mind when you hear the word “tribe”? For me, they sure do: Instinctively, a picture of either Native Americans or jungle dwellers pops into my head.

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Consider a new meaning of the word, one referring to all the groups of people that we associate and work with. In that case, what kinds of tribes do you belong to?  Think companies, organizations, families, and friends.

Seeing the world in terms of tribes can help us be thoughtful communicators, valuable contributors, effective leaders, and more compassionate human beings. Want to see how? Read on!

In a popular TED talk*, University of Southern California professor and author David Logan discusses the tribes that all humans naturally form and categorizes them into five stages.

Stage One is NOT a nice place. At all.

Prisons, gangs, and murderers function in Stage One. These tribes, which account for about 2 percent of the world’s population, do the least good and the most harm. Most people rarely encounter Stage One, but we shouldn’t forget that those in this destructive stage have the potential to move up the tribal ladder.

In Stage Two, we see things getting done and problems being solved.

…But not very quickly. Stage Two is the stereotypical bureaucracy: Nobody’s happy and everything takes forever. These tribes have a culture of hostility and dissatisfaction that impedes collaboration. Approximately one quarter of the world operates here. To quote Logan, these tribes say “My life sucks.”

Moving to Stage Three, we note a shift in attitude.

Stage Three tribes say, again quoting Logan, “I’m great. And you’re not.” In this stage, where almost half of the world operates, individuals feel good about themselves only if they’re doing better than the person next to them. Stage Three tribes are productive and energetic, but egocentric and internally competitive.

United by a cause and cognizant of its own existence, the Stage Four tribe shifts from “I’m Great” to “We’re Great”. This kind of unity puts the success of the team above individual accomplishments. Once individual egos are out of the way, Stage Four will significantly outperform Stage Three in terms of profit, results, and getting things done.

Stage Five tribes are the world-changers.

Every so often, a streamlined group rallied around a noble cause is able to convince other tribes to support them – this results in a global impact. An example of Stage Five: The Truth and Reconciliation process led by Desmond Tutu, where thousands of individual tribes were drawn together to transition South Africa from apartheid to democracy.

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Good to know. So we should all start rallying our tribes with Stage Five ideas, right? Not quite.

Here’s perhaps the most important part: Great leaders speak the language of all 5 tribes.

Logan asserts that tribes are responsive to language one level above and below their own. The best leaders don’t impart Stage Five values on the Stage Three masses: they don’t say “We Have a Dream”, but “I Have a Dream.”

What can you do to cross tribal boundaries?

  • Effective leaders push their tribes in the right direction, toward the next stage.
  • Effective leaders extend their influence not only by gaining followers, but by connecting people who don’t know each other, creating a powerful network that can achieve more than any one tribe can alone.

As Sarasota County gears up for SCOPE’s Annual Boundary Crosser Award on September 8th, let’s keep the five stages of tribal leadership in mind. Through effective networking, communication, and strong core values, the leader in each of us can help cross boundaries – and inch our way up the tribal ladder.

Will your tribe change the world?

* Watch the TED Talk here. This article is a summary of the concepts outlined in Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization by Logan, King, and Wright.

Sam Schimek is the Community Engagement Intern at SCOPE for Summer 2015. Sam is also the founder of the Face to Face Foundation, a nonprofit focused on promoting conversation skills in our age of reliance on technology. He will matriculate at Washington University in St. Louis this fall.