Tribal Leadership Stages: How Culture Develops

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What are the five Tribal Leadership stages? How do you move your organization from one to the next?

Any organization succeeds or fails on the culture of its tribes—groups of individuals that share ways of thinking, interacting, and working—and can improve their organization by upgrading the cultures of those tribes. To elevate a group’s culture, tribal leaders coach their people through five stages, progressing toward the inspired teamwork of Stages 4 and 5. Implement these leadership stages and strategies effectively, and you’ll improve both your bottom line and your employees’ happiness.

Keep reading to learn more about these stages of cultural development.

Tribal Culture Develops Through Five Stages

Tribal Leadership authors Dave Logan, Halee Fischer-Wright, and John King explain that tribes develop through five stages. As tribes advance through the stages, productivity and employee satisfaction increase. Here are the five Tribal Leadership stages:

  • Stage 1: Struggling to stay afloat—Stage 1 tribes, mainly gangs, form from individuals born into underprivileged circumstances. They subsist on intense loyalty and don’t mesh with conventional society.
  • Stage 2: Resigned mediocrity—Stage 2 tribes are tired and disconnected from their work. They achieve average results, innovate little, and live for the weekends.
  • Stage 3: Survival of the fittest—Stage 3 tribes are loose, competitive networks of ambitious, career-focused individuals. They achieve great results, but they struggle to work together.
  • Stage 4: Unified teamwork—Stage 4 tribes work as a team, and they’re productive, innovative, and committed to their work.
  • Stage 5: World-changing innovation—The authors explain that they had just discovered Stage 5 when Tribal Leadership was nearing publication. Stage 5 tribes transcend business competition to pursue near-spiritual, world-changing missions.

Most often, an individual defaults to the stage of the tribe she works with. For instance, an ambitious young person who gets a job at a disillusioned Stage 2 workplace will either conform to that culture or find another job. For this reason, a “mixed stage” tribe is unusual. 

The World of Developmental Stage Models

With these five stages, the authors step into the field of adult development, a branch of science that attempts to model how humans develop into young adulthood and throughout life. The study of adult development extends from the work of psychologists who studied child development, such as Jean Piaget, who pioneered a theory of childhood cognitive stages. 

The central premise of developmental models is that there are distinct, discrete stages that people go through—stages that we can measure, describe, and verify. Prior to the 20th century, prevailing thought held that people were more or less fixed in intelligence, personality traits, and so on. Stage models turn this on its head, arguing that people change several times over the course of life.

Today, some theorists argue that people develop through stages along several different lines. While there’s no consensus, theorists such as Lawrence Kohlberg, Don Beck, Jane Loevinger, and Robert Kegan focus on developmental dimensions including moral development, cognitive development, ego-psychology (development of the individual ego), and spiritual development.  

In The Listening Society, Hanzi Freinacht explains that there are domain-specific and domain-general developmental models. In other words, some models attempt to deal with the whole picture, while others take on one aspect of development. Tribal Leadership does the latter, attempting to explain how individuals, tribes, culture, and leaders develop in a business context. 

Stages Have “Signatures”

The authors write that a tribe signals its cultural stage through three key markers:

Marker #1: The tribe’s attitude toward values. According to the authors, values are what a tribe or organization holds to be important—for instance, newspapers typically value integrity, honesty, and fact-based reporting. At each stage, the tribe members relate to values differently. The lower stages give them short shrift, while the higher stages see them as crucial to work and life. For example, people at Stage 4 see values as the beating heart of their work, and this attitude leads them to build values into everything they do, from strategizing to hiring.

Marker #2: The tribe’s way of speaking. The authors explain that each stage uses a distinct set of words and phrases that reflect that tribal stage’s worldview. Each member of a given tribal stage will use the language of that stage—for example, Stage 3 individuals use egocentric language: “No no no, let me do it.”

According to the authors, the language you use influences how you perceive reality. For example, someone who says “the world’s actually doing better than it seems” will be apt to interpret everything with an optimistic slant. For a tribe member at a given stage, the language he uses determines how he sees the world.

Marker #3: The tribe’s relationship style, which follows from how they see values and how they speak. At the lower stages, relationships form less often and less deeply, while at the higher stages people form meaningful, interconnected relationships that align with their shared values. For example, people at Stage 3 build two-person relationships because they value power and control, and one-on-one exchanges are easier to dominate.

According to the authors, tribes that build strong relationships between members, aligned by their values, are far stronger than tribes with weak member relationships. In fact, lower-stage tribes (Stages 1 through 3) do not yet recognize themselves as tribes, because they lack a sense of their shared identity.

Spiral Dynamics and Tribal Leadership

In Spiral Dynamics, Don Beck and Chris Cowan lay out their developmental stage model—a model from which the authors of Tribal Leadership draw. In Spiral Dynamics, each stage corresponds to a “value meme” (differentiated by colors), or a coherent system of values (a worldview). A person at a given stage expresses their value meme through their characteristic behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, problem areas, and so on. In our presentation of Tribal Leadership’s stage model, we’ve placed values first to emphasize that here too, a stage’s expressions—language and relationships—follow from its values.

Unlike Tribal Leadership’s stage model, Spiral Dynamics has expanded to discuss numerous features of the people at each stage, including a person’s beliefs, life philosophy or attitude toward the world, needs, wants, life goals, and leadership styles.

The authors of Tribal Leadership avoid discussing anything “interior” to the person, such as beliefs or attitudes in order to build a model based on data they could collect regarding what people say and how they relate to one another.

The Stages Progress One-By-One

Crucially, the authors say that a tribe member can only move up one stage at a time. Each stage builds on the previous stage: Stage 3 takes the lessons learned in Stage 2 and expands upon it, further developing the individual. Because of this, no one can skip a stage—you can’t go from the despair of Stage 1 to the high-achieving skillfulness of Stage 3 without first overcoming your despair by moving through Stage 2.

(Shortform note: The notion that you can’t skip a stage also comes from Spiral Dynamics, wherein the authors describe human development as an upward spiral. Starting at the lowest stage as an infant, the individual travels up the spiral to higher stages, progressing according to her efforts to develop herself. Since the stages exist along a spiral, the individual gradually transitions from one to the next. She faces the challenges in her life, learns from them, and reconfigures her values accordingly—gradually rising to the next highest stage.)

Tribal Leaders Develop the Tribe

The tribal leader’s task is to upgrade her tribe by coaching the individual tribe members, one at a time, until the whole tribe levels up. To do this, she learns to recognize the three markers of each cultural stage, as we discussed above. Then, the authors explain, she can recognize the tribes in her organization and start to upgrade their cultures. 

To upgrade a tribe member, the tribal leader uses the two core coaching opportunities of each stage: 

  • Opportunity #1: Help the tribe member change his language. Since an individual’s language determines how he sees life, the tribal leader must help him adopt the language of the next stage. According to the authors, he’ll start to see things through that stage’s worldview, which improves upon his current worldview.
  • Opportunity #2: Help the tribe member build stronger relationships. To move up to each next stage, a tribe member needs strong relationships with people already at that stage. To achieve this, the tribal leader connects him to peers and mentors who can help him reach and remain at that next stage. 
Design Attractive Choices

To improve the effectiveness of the authors’ coaching opportunities, consider the thesis of Nudge: That people are influenced by the way a choice is presented. 

When coaching someone, you guide them to make new, often difficult, choices. You might ease this process by making the choice more attractive, which can influence that person to make the better decision. In this case, that might mean pursuing a new relationship or changing her language. In Nudge, the authors suggest crafting “nudges,” or choices that take advantage of various cognitive biases to subtly push someone toward the “right” choice. 

For instance, you might craft a “default”: Since people often stick with their initial choices, make that default option better. To apply this to relationship building, you might add required social time to a person’s work responsibilities. By default, she’ll engage with her coworkers and find new relationships that help her develop.

The authors explain that when a tribal leader has helped enough individuals to upgrade their stage, the entire tribe will “tip over” into that next stage. Since the leader coaches one tribe member at a time, some tribe members will head toward higher stages before others. But once the leader creates that critical mass of aspiring individuals, the whole culture will conform to the new tribal norms. 

As the leader develops her tribe, the tribe members come to support and legitimize her leadership. As the tribe supports the leader, she grows into her own and does better work. As she puts the tribe first, tribe members come to respect, appreciate, and enjoy working with her.

Critical Mass and the Flywheel Effect

The authors’ notions of cultural transformation and of the leader-tribe relationship invoke one underlying principle—build momentum—in two forms:

Create a critical mass: By accumulating enough energy moving toward the next stage up, you create a self-reinforcing feedback loop. In other words, get enough people on board and they’ll continue to fuel the cultural transformation even when you stop actively pushing the tribe along.

Create a flywheel effect: By developing and inspiring her tribe, the leader gains reciprocal goodwill and effort from the tribe members. As she “pushes” the cultural flywheel with her efforts, the tribe “pushes” along as well and, in time, they create a self-sustaining feedback loop that further develops the leader and tribe.

Both of these effects also lead to homeostasis: A state of dynamic equilibrium or balance in a complex system. When you reach homeostasis at each higher stage, it’s more difficult to fall back down because the leader and tribe members support one another in maintaining a high standard in how they show up for work and life.  
Tribal Leadership Stages: How Culture Develops

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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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