Stages of Tribal Leadership

Casey Fenton


September 2, 2023

Have you ever felt like life sucks, especially when it comes to work? Have you ever been a part of a team that just couldn't seem to get it together? If you have, you're not alone. Many people feel this way, and it's often due to the lack of effective leadership.

This is where tribal leadership comes in. Tribal leadership is the concept that individuals naturally form groups or tribes, and that these tribes have different stages of development. By understanding these stages, leaders can leverage a natural group to build a thriving organization.

In this article, we'll dive into the five stages of tribal leadership, how to identify a tribal culture in the workplace and the characteristics of tribal leaders. Let's get started.

What is Tribal Leadership?

Tribal leadership is a concept introduced by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer - Wright in their book entitled Tribal Leadership Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization. The book by these co authors describes how organizations can use the naturally forming groups within them to achieve great successes and for making history.

According to the co authors of the book, the idea behind tribal leadership is that organizations are made up of tribes, which are groups of people who share similar values and beliefs. These tribes can range in size from two person relationships to large groups of people. Within these tribes, there are five tribal stages that describe the tribe's attitude, behavior, and effectiveness.

The Five Stages of Tribal Leadership

Stage One: Life Sucks

The first stage of tribal leadership is characterized by despairing hostility. This is where most people feel like life sucks, and they're out for themselves. There's a lack of trust, and people tend to focus on their personal agendas rather than the team's goals.

Stage Two: My Life Sucks

The second stage is where individuals start to form small groups, usually based on a one on one relationship or three person relationships. These groups are often focused on complaining about how much their lives suck, and there's a lot of negativity and gossip.

Stage Three: I'm Great, and You're Not

The next stage or the third stage is where the tribal members start to feel good about themselves. They have a sense of identity and common values, but they tend to look down on other tribes and view them as inferior. The focus is on personal success rather than the success of the team.

Stage Four: We're Great, and They're Not

The fourth stage is where participants start to identify with the team and share a sense of purpose. In stage four, there's a focus on achieving goals and making a difference, but there's still a sense of competition with other teams.

Stage Five: Life is Great

The fifth and final stage is where the team has achieved pure leadership. In this higher stage, the focus is on making a positive impact on the world and creating miraculous innovations. The members have a deep sense of trust and a shared vision, and there's a feeling of unity with other teams.

How to Identify a Tribal Culture in the Workplace

Now that you know the five stages of tribal leadership, how do you identify a tribal culture in the workplace? Here are some signs to look out for:

  • The dominant culture is one of competition, rather than collaboration.
  • The emphasis is on individual success rather than team success.
  • There's a lack of trust and a lot of gossip and negativity.
  • Lone warriors are common, and there's a lack of teamwork.
  • There's a lot of turnover, and employees don't feel engaged.

On the other hand, in a tribal culture:

  • The emphasis is on shared values and a sense of purpose.
  • The participants have a deep sense of trust and belonging.
  • There's an emphasis on achieving goals and making a positive impact.
  • People are engaged and committed to the team's success.
  • There's a spirit of collaboration and cooperation.

How to Leverage Natural Groups

As a leader, once you've identified the stage of tribal development within your organization, you can start leveraging a natural group to build a thriving team. Here are some strategies to consider:

1. Listen closely

Take the time to listen to your subordinates and understand their needs and concerns. Create an environment where everyone's voice is heard and valued.

2. Prioritize common values

Identify the shared values within your and use them as a foundation for building a strong work culture. Make sure everyone understands and aligns with these values.

3. Build relationships

Encourage a one on one relationship and small group interactions to foster stronger relationships among subordinates. This will create a sense of trust and collaboration within the tribe.

4. Set a compelling vision

Paint a clear picture of the future and create a compelling vision that inspires your subordinates. Help them understand how their work contributes to the larger purpose.

5. Foster collaboration

Break down silos and encourage cross-team collaboration. Create opportunities for tribes to work together towards common goals, fostering a sense of unity.

6. Celebrate successes

Recognize and celebrate achievements, both big and small. This will boost morale and reinforce the positive work culture within the team.

Characteristics of Tribal Leaders

To effectively lead a team and guide it through the different stages of growth, leaders need to possess certain characteristics. Here are some key traits of tribal leaders:

1. Visionary

Leaders have a clear vision of where they want to take the tribe and inspire others to join them on the journey.

2. Empathetic

They understand the needs and concerns of their subordinates and are able to empathize with them. This helps build trust and strong relationships.

3. Communicative

Leaders are excellent communicators. They are able to effectively convey their vision, provide feedback, and listen to their subordinates.

4. Collaborative

They value collaboration and actively encourage teamwork within the team. They understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

5. Adaptable

Leads are adaptable and open to change. They are willing to embrace big ideas and approaches to improve the tribe's effectiveness.

6. Mentoring

They invest time in developing the skills and capabilities of their members. They act as mentors and provide guidance and support.

Alignment as a Requirement for a Culture of Innovation

Think about it. When everyone understands the bigger picture and sees how their contributions make a difference, they become more engaged and committed to the team's success. It's about aligning the goals and aspirations of individual tribe members with those of the entire organization. This shared sense of purpose not only fosters a positive work environment but also fuels motivation and dedication.

Captains need to break down the barriers that often exist between groups within an organization. Instead of viewing other tribal teams as competitors, captains should encourage collaboration and foster a sense of unity across different groups. By embracing the idea that "we're all on the same team," members can collaborate, share resources, and learn from one another, leading to enhanced overall performance. It's about leveraging a natural group to build a thriving team where everyone works together towards a common goal.

Now, the journey through the stages of tribal leadership is not always linear. A tribe can regress to lower stages if certain challenges arise or if there is a change in leadership. Therefore, it's crucial for captains to continuously assess the tribal stage and take proactive measures to address any issues that may hinder progress. It's about recognizing the different leverage points and using them to propel the team forward.

Imagine a workplace where individuals come together, not just as employees, but as members who share a common purpose and set of values. It's a place where life doesn't suck, but rather, where life is great because people tend to thrive when they are part of a team that supports and uplifts them.

In this environment, the tribe's attitude is one of collaboration, where members listen closely to one another and work towards a common goal. It's a place where the dominant culture is one of positivity, creativity, and support, rather than despairing hostility. It's a place where members feel a sense of belonging and purpose, and where their unique contributions are valued and celebrated.

So, whether you're a tribal leader or an aspiring new leader, you should embrace the principles of tribal leadership. Build strong relationships, foster a sense of purpose, and leverage the power of a natural group to create a thriving team. Remember, it's not just about building a successful business; it's about building a team where life is great, where people feel a sense of belonging and purpose, and where together, you can achieve remarkable things.

In the end, it's the collective efforts of the team that make all the difference. So, become the tribal leader your organization needs, nurture your team, and watch as your organization transforms into a thriving, innovative, and successful tribe that is making history.

Equity Compensation for Company-Employee Alignment

This discussion on tribal leadership, among other insightful points such as ownership mindset, was passionately presented by Casey Fenton, founder of Couchsurfing and Upstock, at the "Running Remote Conference 2023" held in Lisbon. As the concept of tribal leadership emphasizes the importance of aligning employees with the organization's goals and fostering a sense of purpose, it becomes crucial to explore effective tools for achieving this alignment.

This is where Upstock can help your team with. Upstock offers innovative and equitable solutions to ensure alignment and employee engagement. By providing employees with the opportunity to become shareholders and benefit from the company's success, Upstock enables organizations to strengthen the sense of tribe, foster a shared purpose, and drive collective success. 

With Upstock, organizations can effectively leverage the principles of tribal leadership while fostering a culture of ownership and engagement among their members. Drop us a message to see what’s in store for your team with our equity solutions!

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Casey Fenton

Founder, Upstock & Couchsurfing, AI and Equity Innovator

Casey Fenton, the founder of Upstock & Couchsurfing and an AI and equity innovator, has revolutionized how we perceive and implement equity in the workplace. His foresight in creating platforms that not only connect people but also align their interests towards communal and corporate prosperity has established him as a pivotal figure in technology and community building. Casey speaks worldwide on topics including ownership mindset, worker equity, With Upstock and Couchsurfing, he has demonstrated an unparalleled expertise in harnessing technology for the betterment of community interaction and organizational benefits.

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