Tribal Leadership was the maiden book in the MEI book club. As we began building out our team, we naturally wanted to place a top priority on the ‘who.’ This is important in all organizations, especially those that intend to remain small and lean. After reading Tribal Leadership, we realized that in order to build the right culture for a lean team, we needed to form a tribe that: 1) enjoys working together for a cause greater than each individual, 2) imparts behaviors consistent with the mission and values of the company and 3) has open and honest communication using the language of high-performing tribes.

The authors break down the 5 stages of Tribal Leadership from 1 (horrific) to 5 (world class). For starters, the size of a tribe matters and typically maxes out around 150 people. Organizations larger than 150 people are then tribes of tribes likely broken up by office location or job function.

The size limit of a tribe is not by accident; in fact, it is in our DNA. Hunter gatherer tribes typically maxed out around this number as that was the maximum number a community could feed and protect. The same goes for Amish communities, Marine companies and the Bushmen of South Africa. A professor from Oxford University named Robin Dunbar concluded that people are unable to hold more than ~150 close relationships. Informally he explains this figure as ‘the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” Once the tribe gets beyond the ‘bar test,’ it has grown too large and should (or will naturally) split into two tribes.

The science doesn’t end there. The chemical oxytocin is the main driver behind forming and maintaining successful tribes. It is the chemical that allows us to feel like we belong. It is the feeling of camaraderie and friendship and the feeling of safety. Humans were biologically designed to be part of a herd, to find comfort when we ‘belong.’

The flip side is also true. When organizations don’t offer the feeling of safety or belongingness, anxiety increases, and performance worsens. So not only is it the right thing to do, but it has proven time and again to be good for the bottom line. As such, companies should invest time and energy to ensure that their employees are indeed part of a stage 4 or stage 5 tribe.

The 5 stages

1. Life Sucks. This stage is hostile and violent. Fortunately, most organizations aren’t at this stage and those that are function like street gangs. They believe everything around them sucks. To advance to the next stage, individuals should spend time with those in stage 2 who only think their life is bad instead of the whole world being bad and cut ties with those who are in the life sucks category.

2. My life sucks. People in this stage are passive and self-centered, even cynical. They are the types that have seen it all and lack innovation. Many government organizations operate in this phase and those that are fans of the (amazing) television show “The Office” should have a clear picture of a stage 2 organization. These people are quick to blame the company, their support or their boss. Often their boss is in stage 3 while they operate below in stage 2. They are overly creative as to why things won’t work, as opposed to looking to how things could or will work. Managers should demonstrate to these folks how their work matters and provide them with tasks requiring little to no micromanagement so they can experience autonomy and purpose. Those transitioning from stage 2 to 3 will begin bragging or name dropping as they begin to focus more on themselves.

3. I’m great and you’re not. Stage 3ers hoard knowledge and power. They are quick to gossip and never have enough help. They are the ‘smartest in the room’, love winning and view their involvement within the organization as a zero-sum game. Leaders with teammates in this stage should assign these individuals projects with broader teams. Large organizations with excessive middle management are usually ripe with individuals in stage 3. The transition out of stage 3 is when the person realizes “I’m great because we’re great” and they shift from “I” to “We” chat.

4. We’re great and they’re not. This is where innovation happens and communication flows freely. No time for office politics. Stage 4 organizations will eject those type of people. Their adversary is competition on the outside. Networks grow to become more diverse, time allocation is based on noble values, and there is constant communication to ensure what has been working is still working and working for the right reasons. Stage 4 organizations go beyond the tactical to the strategic. The people come first. They ignore organizational boundaries, have no formal trainings and members of the tribe look out for one another. A good example is NASCAR. They give business cards to everyone in the organization and let them know how they are serving the broader purpose. Level 4 organizations ask questions like: what do we stand for? In service of what? They are always connecting people both inside and outside of the organization. Leaders of level 4 organizations build triads where they no longer need to be involved. CBRE legend Darla Longo built her network this way. She is quoted as saying: “If you build the relationship between two people and then walk away, most of them will praise your efforts. You’ve increased the respect you get by showing the same to other people.”

5. Life is great. According to the research in the book, less than 2% of organizations operate at this stage, and rarely any maintain this stage. Bursts of this stage are common for high performing level 4 organizations. Stage 5 is innocent wonderment. Organizations change the world in level 5. Amgen is a great example. They truly believe they are competing against cancer not other companies in the healthcare industry. Even the janitors at Amgen see themselves as part of the solution. These organizations dream big, grossly outperform industry norms, avoid workplace conflict and have little to no fear, anxiety or stress.

At MEI, we like to think we are a stage 4 organization with periodic visits into stage 5. While we want to be successful ourselves, we do value the growth of the industry and are willing to work with our perceived competitors to share best practices, support industry organizations, and triad relationships even if there is no immediate gain for MEI.

From reading this book we learned the importance of communication and language and how to talk more like a level 4 or 5 organization and avoid level 1-3 dialogue. We understand that good leaders nudge and get out of the way, they put the tribe first. They understand which stage their people are in and help advance them to the next stage.

During the hiring process and onboarding process (if you can call it that), we attempt to spend time with the individual and understand how they work, communicate and how they intend to approach the role, the company and the industry. Additionally, we do our best to lead the current members of our team in level 4 with bursts of level 5 and trust that one day we will be full-time level 5!

We hope that you learned something about the stages of Tribal Leadership that you can provide in your own organization. You can purchase the book and take a quiz on the Tribal Leadership website.