These past weeks I have been reading Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organisation, and doing a lot of thinking as to why particular cultures form within an organisation, but also how we can influence company culture.
Most people are familiar with the now famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, meaning that company culture determines very much what actually gets implemented and how a strategy is being followed (or not).
This question of culture and culture change have long been core questions for leadership and management studies all trying to determine the best steps to be taken.
I’ve gathered here some key insights from the book and a full confession of course that there is no way I can do justice or full summary here (as you should really read the book as well).
Tribal leadership explained
The book on tribal leadership dwells deep into the question of how can we develop and support thriving cultures within organisations.
After 10 years of study of over 24 000 individuals, the authors suggest that understanding tribes, their formation and different stages, is key and conclude that
“The success of a company depends on its tribes. The strength of its tribes is determined by the tribal culture, and a thriving corporate culture can only be established by an effective tribal leader”
An effective leader aims to move his tribes from stages that do not support tribal coherence, vision and values, and find strategies to shift performance across individuals and tribes:
“The way to move the entire tribe’s performance to the next level is to move the critical mass to the next stage. This process involves moving many people forward, individually, by facilitating them to use a different language, and to shift their behaviour accordingly” (p. 27).
In other words, organisations change through changes in mindsets of those people who work there.
This is why such factors as language are critical as words and phrases signal strongly where an individual is at, how the tribe is thinking about what is happening, and which strategies are most effective in moving towards higher stages of increased performance and well-being.
This is also why it is crucial to have staff development programs that focus on the mindset of people rather than just honing specific skills.
Stages of tribal leadership
The authors identified five general stages that people go through with each stage having its own challenges and opportunities in how we can enable people to move from one stage to the next.
Each stage has early, mid and end points, but here is a short summary of what the first 4 stages include in general (as the fifth requires its own blog).
Stage 1 is when people think everything is bad, the whole universe sucks, and there is not much they can personally do to change things.
Dealing with such people within organisations is challenging as much of this mindset relates to negativity, and results often also in difficult behaviour at the work place.
For people stuck in this mindset, they see everything coloured through the mantra of “everything sucks” and become easily victims of the system rather than looking for strategies to move away from this mindset.
Stage 2 has people who are disconnected and disengaged; they are not open for new ideas because “we already tried that and that did not work” mentality.
Disengagement is high and it is difficult to move people from this stage to stage 3 as they often resist change and don’t realise their own agency at the workplace.
Conspiracy theories are rife in stage 2, bosses are evil, and the circle of complaining just keeps going.
What makes stage 2 dangerous is that it is contagious: the more people complain, the more there is to complain, and so people remain caught in this vicious circle and have difficulty in moving upwards.
Stage 3 is when people say “I am great- but you are not”. Many people believe in their own agency at this stage but do things across the organisation to advance only their own careers.
The broader organisational goals are vaguely understood and mostly only important when they are used to show how that individual’s amazing actions are contributing to those directly or indirectly.
Success is determined solely individually in stage 3, and many leaders in stage 3 micromanage, and try to hoard knowledge and power so that they can make sure that they are seen as successful… even if they have a detrimental impact on their staff and other members in the organisation.
They do own agency but mostly for themselves, and moving from this stage to stage 4 requires a new level of reflection and self-awareness where the leader suddenly discovers how his or her behaviour has not contributed to the broader goals of “we”.
Stage 4 is where people’s mindsets shift from “I am great” to “we are great”.
Stage 4 is really about sharing a commitment to core values, noble cause, and also integrity in processes, but it is mostly characterised by a fundamental shift in mindset from individual to tribal.
Stage 4 focuses on high performance and excellence in an environment that is built through trust, and has voluntary buy-in from the members who decide to work together.
Often stage 4 leaders take 3 of the following paths to create stage 4 tribes:
1) they form their tribe and then establish an organisation (eg I want to work with my friends),
2) they look within the broader organisation and seek individuals who “are eager to play by a different set of rules” (p. 132) and establish a project or department that becomes highly successful, or
3) the leader ignores organisational boundaries and starts identifying individuals through networking and forms a tribe by inviting people to participate.
This is reaching out to people who are ready to embrace a new mindset and who understand the importance of working together vs. working alone (stage 3).
Falling and getting up again
The trick to understand is that everyone of us is capable of falling between the stages, and revisiting negative mindsets and attitudes even if we think we have achieved and operate on higher stages.
Being on stage 4 for example does not mean that we can keep everyone on it, and that we don’t mess up and start complaining, and find ourselves some days solidly on stage 2.
I have been recently faced with some of these issues where I feel I have the right to complain about particular issues, and that has just taken me down to stage 2 whereas in many other areas I feel really empowered and solidly on stage 4.
I can see this in both my behaviour and language, and likely more so while I have been reading this book and thinking about the insights and strategies.
What for me is important is the integrity of process in leadership that is truly inclusive and transparent, a journey where we do take others with us in a genuine manner.
Innovation is built on trust and requires stage 4 environment to flourish; a stage where people clearly agree on a shared vision, on the core values, and on the noble cause that is driving them forward together so that “even if people fail, the noble cause was worth the effort“.
That noble cause should be at the forefront of our thinking, constantly asking “in the service of what”, and use that as an important yardstick to measure our actions and the way we lead:
“If core values are the fuel of the tribe, a noble cause is the direction where it’s headed. A noble cause captures the tribe’s ultimate aspirations… said differently, core values are what we ‘stand in’ and a noble cause is what we ‘shoot for’ “ (p. 169).
The importance of moving to stage 4 cannot be understated as it is first there that tribes are born and ready to work together, and we can start building thriving organisations.
As you can guess, there is more to say on how to truly develop and foster effective high performance tribes in practice so plenty of more thoughts on this on the way.