Tribal Leadership: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 21st, 2012 by bobmorris

Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization
Dave Logan, John King & Halee Fischer-Wright
HarperBusiness (2008)

How and why “workplace tribes” in almost any organization can develop the leaders needed at all levels and in all areas

When I first saw the title of this book before reading it, I immediately recalled great leaders throughout ancient history, including those whom Homer discusses in his two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey as well as those featured in plays written by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. More than 2,000 years later, the tribal leaders that Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright discuss in this book are “natural leaders,” as were Achilles, Odysseus, Orestes, and Oedipus. However, they lead fellow workers rather than warriors to “victory” in the business world rather than on a battlefield. Moreover, what the co-authors mean by a “tribe” is a naturally occurring groups of 20-150 people. Viewed this way, an organization becomes an interconnected series of these tribes. The key to changing an organization is to upgrade its tribes, one member at a time, through one stage at a time.

As I shall soon discuss in more detail, their view of stages is the key to getting an organization at least to the fourth of five stages of development. Their view is very practical: how to transform an organization. What they propose is based on a ten-year set of research studies that involved 24,000 people in two dozen organizations, with their members located around the world. The co-authors share what they learned from their research in this book.

For example, how to build and then sustain strong relationships between and among an organization’s tribal members. As they explain, “Every tribe has a dominant culture, which we can peg on a one-to-five scale, with Stage Five being most desirable. All things being equal, a Five culture will always outperform a Four culture, which will outperform a Three culture, and so on.” Paradoxically, the leadership challenge is to strengthen a tribe until it becomes a Four or Five culture while allowing it to function collaboratively within a federation with other tribes. In essence, the strength of a tribe is determined by the health of its culture.

In Chapter 3, Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright introduce and explain what they characterize as “the tribal leadership navigation system.” Its purpose is help leaders in the 75% of companies whose workplace tribes have a cultural Stage Three or below to locate the leverage points by which to nudge their company forward (i.e. higher) faster while emerging as a tribal leader. The co-authors suggest how to determine the current culture stage and then explain what is needed to reach the next stage.

One key point is that advancing a tribe is most efficiently achieved one member at a time. Aspiring leaders, therefore, must keep in mind that they have two eyes, two ears, but only one mouth. Therefore, they should spend at least 80% of their time observing what is (and isn’t) happening and listening to what is (and isn’t) said. Those whom Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright cite as effective tribal leaders (e.g. Griffin Hospital’s David Charmel, the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s Mike Eruzione, IDEO’s David Kelley, and the Moore Foundation’s Frank Jordan) have highly developed skills for “reading” a person’s tone of voice and body language.Personal note: My own experience while working closely with several hundred companies is that one of the most revealing indicators is workers’ use of pronouns. Those who are actively and productively engaged use first-person plural pronouns almost exclusively. Those who are passively engaged or actively disengaged (i.e. dysfunctional) seldom do.

Credit Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright with making especially effective use of various reader-friendly devices. For example, Technical Notes, Key [Chapter] Points, Coaching Tips, Summaries, Leverage Points for a Person (per Stage), and Success Indicators. These devices facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review later.

Here in a single volume is about as much information, insights, and advice as a business leader needs to help her or his “tribe” (be it a department, division, or company) to develop and then sustain at least a Four culture. The success of those efforts, however, must be collaborative in nature and continuous at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise.

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