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Tribal leadership. How does it affect your company culture?

Written by: on  September 19, 2012

In under 10 years Zappos grew to achieve a billion dollars in annual gross merchandise sales, while simultaneously making Fortune magazine’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list. Success that was driven primarily by repeat customers and word of mouth – something your company probably depends on for cashflow.

While their brand has come to be known for delivering excellent customer service, their priority is surprisingly not customer service – it’s cultivating company culture. Zappos believe if they get culture right, most of the other stuff – such as delivering great customer service or building an enduring brand or business – will happen as a natural by-product of the culture. They’re serious, even offering to pay new employees 5K USD if they chose to leave within the first 6 weeks – if the culture doesn’t fit.

So for the next few minutes let’s look at how you can cultivate culture in your own workplace by developing tribes:

Tribal Leadership BookTribal Leadership (Dave Logan, John King & Halee Fischer-Wright) is the result of a 10 year study of 24,000 people in 24 organisations. The authors found that what separates average tribes from those that excel is culture.

Tribes in companies get work done – sometimes a lot of work – but they don’t form because of work. Tribes are the basic building block of any large human effort and their effort is greater than that of teams, entire companies, and even superstar CEOs.

What is a Tribe?


  • A Tribe is any group of about 20 to 150 people who know one another enough that, if they saw another walking down the street, would stop and say ‘hello’.
  • A small company is a tribe, and a large company is a tribe of tribes
  • What makes some tribes more effective than others is culture. Each time people speak, their words exhibit the characteristics of one of five tribal stages. Stage Five outperforms Four, which accomplishes more than Three, which gets more done than Two, which is more effective than One.
  • A medium to large tribe (50 to 150 people) usually has several cultural stages operating at the same time.


What is Tribal Leadership?


  • Tribal Leadership focuses on language and behaviour within a culture
  • It does not seek to address cognitions, beliefs, attitudes, or other factors we cannot directly observe
  • Each cultural stage has its own way of speaking, types of behaviour, and structures of relationships
  • Tribal Leaders do two things: (1) listen for which culture exists in their tribes and (2) upgrade those tribes using specific leverage points.

Summary of the Five Tribal Stages


Stage One:  The person at Stage One is alienated from others expressing the view that ‘life sucks’. When people at this stage cluster together, their behaviour expresses despairing hostility, such as in a gang.


Stage Two: The person at Stage Two is separate from others.

Although unlike Stage One, Stage Two people are surrounded by people who seem to have some power they lack. As a result their language expresses ‘my life sucks.’ When people at this stage cluster together, their behaviour is characteristic of being apathetic victims. As long as people are in Stage Two they believe their destiny is not their own. As a result they avoid accountability and use phrases like ‘I’ll try,’ and ‘I can’t promise.’ Their language system states ‘I’m not valued,’ and as a result people feel disconnected and disengaged.

Overall , about 25 % of workplace tribes are dominant Stage Two.


Stage Three: A person enters Stage Three when he finds his groove, acquires confidence, and is recognised for his success.

The person at Stage Three is connected to others in a series of dyadic (two-person) relationships. The language of this stage expresses ‘I’m great,’ and in the background – unstated – is ‘and you’re not.’

When people at Stage Three cluster together, they attempt to outperform one another (on an individual basis) and put one another down. Each is striving for dominance and individuals’ behaviour expresses a ‘lone warrier’ ethos, Collectively the culture becomes the ‘wild, wild west’ and 47% of American professionals operate at Stage Three in a Stage Three culture, the zone of personal accomplishment.


Stage Four: Stage Four is about identifying and leveraging core values and aligning a ‘noble cause’.

In Stage Four groups, when two members of the group meet, they’re excited about being with another member of the tribe. People are fully themselves, no corporate cult, and no copycat leaders running around. Everyone seems happy, inspired, and genuine. The person forms structures called triads, in which they build values-based relationships between others. At the same time, the words of Stage Four people are centered on ‘we’re great’ and in the background, ‘and they’re not.’ The ‘they’ is another tribe – in the same company or in another. When people at Stage Four cluster together, they radiate tribal pride.


Stage Five Stage Five accounts for just under 2% of workplace cultures.

It’s marked by ‘life is great’ language, devoid of any competitor. The kind of people attracted to a Stage Five culture are driven by mission and purpose, and that sets the tribe apart. A person at Stage Five expresses ‘life is great.’ Five shares the same characteristics as Four, except that there is no ‘they.’ As a result, these people form ever-growing networks with anyone whose values resonate with their own.

The only Stage Five cultures that have been observed (in corporate settings) exist as long as a history-making project last or as long as the tribe is so far ahead of its competitors that they are irrelevant. Once the situation changes, the culture regresses to Stage Four, where it can move forward once a new opportunity arises or is engineered. The behaviour of Stage Five expresses innocent wonderment.


The book analyzes the behaviour and language of each tribal stage and follows the journey through the tribal stages. It breaks each step down in to leverage points and success indicators, and offers a wealth of research and practical coaching tools for any leader looking for cultural change. Their Five Components of Tribal Strategy offers an easy to implement process to follow for tribal change.

What tribes do you have in your organisation, and what level?



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