Tribal Leadership: Review, Context, Impact, & More

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Tribal Leadership" by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who wrote Tribal Leadership? What are the book’s strengths and weaknesses? What impact has it had?

The book Tribal Leadership was first published in 2008 by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins. It’s the only book on which Dave Logan, Halee Fischer-Wright, and John King collaborated. In the book, they describe how to improve an organization by leveling up its culture. An organization is made of tribes—socially networked groups of 20 to 150 people—and the cultures of those tribes determine the organization’s performance and its members’ happiness.

Keep reading for our Tribal Leadership review, covering the book’s authors, context, impact, and more.

Tribal Leadership Review

A tribal leader is someone who builds a higher-level tribe by coaching its members to develop their skills and become team players. As this leader coaches tribe members to higher stages, the tribe’s culture will transform, and the overall organization will perform far better. According to the authors, using the strategies in the book Tribal Leadership will improve your bottom line, and your employees will become more motivated, productive, and happy. Here’s our Tribal Leadership review.

The Book’s Authors

Logan is a faculty member at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, where he teaches in the MBA program and served as associate dean for four years. He’s the co-founder of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, and he’s written or co-written five books, including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance.  

Fischer-Wright is president and CEO of Medical Group Management Association, as well as a former physician and management consultant. Fischer-Wright has held numerous leadership positions in the health care industry, and she’s been recognized as a top 100 leader in health care for several years.

King is an executive-level coach and co-author of The Coaching Revolution, as well as a trainer, speaker, and teacher. He has extensive teaching experience at schools including the USC Marshall School of Business, the University of Arizona Eller College of Management, the Central Eurasian Leadership Academy, and the Middle East Leadership Academy. King also facilitates The Samurai Game, an intensive leadership simulation meant to teach leadership in the heat of battle.

Connect with Logan, Fischer-Wright, and King:

The Book’s Historical and Intellectual Context

According to the authors, Tribal Leadership draws from the work of Don Beck and Chris Cowan in Spiral Dynamics, which presents a model of adult development that draws in turn from Clare W. Graves’s theory of emergent cyclical levels of existence. Graves, a professor of psychology at Union College, theorized that adults develop various psychosocial coping mechanisms to deal with existential challenges, such as conforming with group norms to preserve self-esteem. 

Following Graves’s lead, Beck and Cowan developed Spiral Dynamics, a model to explain how individuals and value systems develop. Similar to Graves’s model, Spiral Dynamics holds that people develop value systems and corresponding behaviors in response to the demands of their environments—for example, Westerners in a modern society tend to seek individualistic success, pursue “the good life,” and act pragmatically to win.

In The Listening Society, Hanzi Freinacht argues that numerous “domain-specific” models attempt to explain adult development along particular lines. Tribal Leadership presents one such model, aimed at explaining adult professional development and organizational-cultural development within a traditional business context. The authors’ model follows the convention of describing various stages of development, and it uses values, language, and behavior as the metrics with which it delineates stages. 

The Book’s Impact

Today, Tribal Leadership is one of a bevy of business books that describe various approaches to culture and leadership, and it may have sparked early movement toward today’s paradigm of collaborative work cultures. At the time of first publication, the authors wrote extensively on Stage 3’s individualism-fueled problems; however, they acknowledge in the afterword of the 2011 edition that millennials resisted Stage 3 and instead demanded collaborative, fair workplaces. A decade later, that trend has unfolded into a sizable shift toward Stage 4, where teamwork predominates.

Additionally, Tribal Leadership may have started the conversation about the power that informal workplace networks have over top-down structures. Throughout the book, the authors emphasize that tribes—which are social networks more than work teams—determine what gets done, and they avoid using traditional org charts to model how a business “should” structure itself. This approach is less precise, so it doesn’t give the comfortable feeling of certainty that comes with neatly boxing things up. However, the authors’ effort to communicate the messy, organic process of discovering and upgrading the tribes within an organization—which are harder to define—has led to network mapping approaches that have various advantages over org-chart-based restructuring

The Book’s Critical Reception

Online reviewers applaud Tribal Leadership’s clear descriptions of various business cultures, its “aha” moments in its discussion of triad-based networking, and the chapter-by-chapter summaries of key points. Others praise the clear writing and effectively structured chapters.

Critical reviewers dislike the book’s focus on theory over practice, saying that the authors are consultants rather than practitioners. Some readers feel the book is repetitive, and some say that the authors get too caught up in their own model without providing evidence to support their claims.

The Book’s Approach

Tribal Leadership presents a thorough description of various corporate cultures. The authors’ detailed model of tribes and their development makes clear how culture impacts success, though they don’t show plainly that their methods have created any such culture. Instead, they relate anecdotes of cultures that became effective through trial and error—and they acknowledge that many leaders develop their tribes instinctively, rather than by following a model.

The authors offer plenty of actionable tips for coaching individuals to higher levels of productivity and fulfillment. Moreover, the emphasis on tribes as social structures helps to make sense of why the shared mood of an organization determines how well people perform.

The Book’s Organization

The book’s chapters follow a clear progression, from introducing the main concepts to describing each stage in order, and are interspersed with chapters to elaborate on pivotal points in the process. While this organization is broadly effective, each chapter moves between descriptions of the individuals, tribes, and organizations at each stage, so it’s sometimes unclear to which entity the author’s tips and advice apply. 

Further, the authors scatter various coaching tips and “technical notes” throughout each chapter. Each chapter ends with a succinct list of key takeaways that help the reader to recall and retain the ideas.

Tribal Leadership: Review, Context, Impact, & More

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright's "Tribal Leadership" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Tribal Leadership summary :

  • Why culture makes all the difference when it comes to business
  • The five stages of elevating a group's culture
  • How to know which stage your work culture is in

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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