Tribes and Tribal Leadership


The book Tribes by Seth Godin is slightly larger than a CD jewel case. Yet the wisdom Godin shares in the book resonates on a MUCH bigger scale – and apparently with MANY people (the book has been the #1 bestselling leadership book on Amazon for nearly a year).

Godin suggests that anyone, anywhere can be a leader. The one thing holding most people back is the fear of failure.

Tribes isn’t a step-by-step manual about being a leader. Godin explains that:

Every tribe is different. Every leader is different. The very nature of leadership is that you’re not doing what’s been done before. If you were, you’d be following, not leading.

Tribes is about making a choice – to lead or not to lead. Using real world examples, Godin tells stories about how famous and not so famous people made the choice to lead and the amazing things they’ve accomplished.

The insights in Godin’s book are not profound – and maybe that’s the point. For example, Godin skillfully shows time and time again why management is not the same as leadership.

Management is about manipulating resources to get a known job done … Managers manage a process they’ve seen before, and they react to the outside world, striving to make that process as fast and as cheap as possible. Leadership, on the other hand, is about creating a change that you believe in.

Godin writes that it takes only two things to turn any group into a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.

So a leader can help increase the effectiveness of the tribe and its members by

  • transforming the shared interest into a passionate goal and desire for change;
  • providing tools to allow members to tighten their communication; and
  • leveraging the tribe to allow it to grow and gain new members.

Most leaders focus only on the third tactic. A bigger tribe somehow equals a better tribe. In fact, the first two tactics almost always lead to more impact.

One of Godin’s most valuable insights is a short narrative explaining why leadership is scarce.

Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. This scarcity makes leadership valuable. If everyone tries to lead all the time, not much happens. It’s discomfort that creates the leverage that makes leadership worthwhile…

It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers.

It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail.

It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo.

It’s uncofmortable to rests the urge to settle.

…If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.

Godin effectively demonstrates that one does not need to lead a Fortune 500 corporation to be a leader. It’s an important book and I highly recommend you read it – especially if you see yourself only as a follower.


The book Tribal Leadership (by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright) picks up where Godin’s Tribes stops. They are very different books. Godin’s Tribes made the compelling case that anyone can lead by empowering small tribal groups. Tribal Leadership, based on a 10 year, 24,000 person study, reveals how one can empower small tribal groups.

Most people believe that innovation, quality and success is the product of great leadership. A ten year, 24,000 person study found that “tribes”, naturally forming groups of between 20-150 people, and not leaders, drive success in virtually all organizations.

Great leaders understand their own limitations and know that it’s not easy to change cultures, especially in larger organizations. Gimmicks, “initiatives”, and massive cultural changes are often artificial and fall flat. Great leaders know that the only way to move the culture of an organization is to focus on groups – tribes – within those organizations.

Tribal Leadership describes the five stages of tribal culture. The stages are:

Stage 1 – “Life Sucks”. People in stage one believe that life sucks. Period. They believe that there is nothing the individual can do to fix problems. This type of culture is found in prisons and among gangs, but amazingly, also in two percent of corporate tribes.

Stage 2 – “My Life Sucks”. People in stage two know that life can be good, but believe that their life sucks. This stage represents 25 percent of all corporate culture. People in stage 2 blame others and rarely do anything voluntarily to help. If you’ve seen the television show The Office, you’ll see a good example of a stage 2 tribe. You’ll also know people around you who are stuck in this stage.

Stage 3 – “I’m Great”. Stage 3 is the dominant culture in companies in the United States. People in Stage 3 think “I’m great” but there’s a hidden statement that’s often left unsaid – “I’m great and you aren’t.” People in stage 3 are driven to win, but winning is personal. They view others, including teammates and those outside their organization, as their competitors. If you look around your organizations – and even at yourself – it’s highly likely that on most days –you and others are at stage 3. While stage 3 cultures can achieve great successes – stage 3 also leads to burnout. Microsoft has been operating in a stage 3 culture for a lengthy period of time.

Stage 4 – “We’re great”. This stage represents 22 percent of tribal cultures. This stage compares “our tribe ”against other tribes. Tribes at stage 4 collaborate and put the good of the tribe above the good of the individual.The tribes within Apple are at stage 4 much of the time. Tribes at stage 4 share information and build on each other’s success.

Stage 5 – “Life is great.” Only two percent of tribes fall in this stage. Tribes at this stage want to make history and have produced real innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was stage 5. Tribes operating at stage 5 are true leaders and true innovators.

Tribal Leadership offers real and meaningful insight into how leaders can help to move their tribes and individual members of their tribes, to the next stage.

Dave Logan, one of the authors of Tribal Leadership, visited crowdSPRING last year. We had a chance to talk about how the lessons from Tribal Leadership applied to start-ups, remote teams, and social communities. Here’s what Dave had to say:

1. Tribal Leadership focuses on tribes of 20 to 150 people. How can start-ups and companies with smaller teams leverage the advice from the book?

First of all, what looks like a group of people under 20 is almost always a tribe. In our company, for example, we have four partners. But by the time you add in our accountants (2), IP lawyer, book agents (2), publishers and related personnel (8), key clients (about 40), plus spouses/fiancées (4), advisors (5) etc., we’re up a mid-sized tribe. Our advice to a group truly smaller than 20 is get bigger fast. A company, even a small one, needs more horsepower than a handful of people can produce. That said, the dynamics in teams are very similar to tribes. The difference is that teams are small enough that people’s behaviors sometimes mold to fit group process.

2. Some companies have disparate teams who rarely meet in person. What special challenges do such teams face in elevating their culture to succeed?

We work with many companies that have teams (or tribes) that are scattered around the globe, work in different time zones, and in some cases, speak versions of English that are more different than similar. Even in these extreme cases, tribal dynamics work just the same. If possible, we advise bringing the groups together for a strategy session in which people assess their culture (on the 1-5 scale) and construct short-term projects that will accomplish important aims. Then working remotely works much better.

3. What technology companies today operate at the highest levels of performance? What’s their secret?

The big differences in great technology companies compared to other “normal” companies are: (1) they tend to be young—hence not as bureaucratic; (2) they employ smart people who can think in terms of systems; and (3) they have an objective that has an element of nobility to it. Think of Apple integrating technological platforms through elegant design, or Zappos changing the world one phone call at a time. The danger for companies that don’t have these three characteristics is that they put rules ahead of results, form silos that seem more important than the company, and often have people working just for the paycheck. Those are the ingredients for mediocrity.

4. What three steps can a leader take today to begin improving their team?

#1: identify the natural clusters of people—who work together.
#2: assess the cultural stage of those clusters
#3: move them to the next stage

5. Tribal Leadership talks about organizational teams. Do these lessons apply to “tribes” in social communities online?

Yes, the same dynamics work online. The only difference is the upper limit of 150 people gets a little mushy as on-line communities can get very large. But still, our ability to form meaningful relationships with people caps out in the 200 range. But as technology does more of the work for us, this upper limit will continue to move.

If you haven’t read Tribal Leadership, I strongly encourage you to do so. After I read the book last year, I wrote to the authors to tell them that “No non-fiction book has ever had such a profound impact on me.” I meant every word and I continue to believe this today.

  • Birasen1967

    rare book on tribes,this book not only tell the truth on tribe but it will enlight the socity.

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