After watching Dave Logan’s TED talk about tribal leadership last spring, and blogging about it in fascination, I finally read his book.  Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, which Logan co-wrote with John King and Halee Fischer-Wright, is really about the power of language and how it shapes and reveals the reality of a tribe.  Logan, King and Fischer-Wright conducted much of their research by interviewing members of various business tribes and recording the frequency with which they used certain words:

  • A Stage One tribe, the stage of street gangs and prison populations who believe “life sucks,”  frequently uses the words “can’t, break, sucks, cut, whatever.”
  • A Stage Two tribe, the stage of “my life sucks,” uses the words “boss, life, try, can’t, give up, quit, sucks.”
  • A Stage Three tribe, in which smart, successful people believe “I’m great and you’re not,” uses the words “I, me, my, job, did, do, have, went.”
  • A Stage Four tribe, which believes “we’re great,” uses the words “we, our, team, do, them, have, did it, commit, value.”
  • A Stage Five tribe, which is committed to a noble cause and whose work is so elevated they don’t even consider themselves to have competitors, uses the words “wow, miracle, lucky, vision, values, we.”

Following the writings of Kenneth Burke on rhetoric, the authors posited that the “web of words” existing in the mind of any individual is not only  a reflection of reality, but must be a selection of reality, and thus a deflection of reality at the same time.  “If people change their words…they change their perception of reality.  As they change their reality their behavior changes automatically. Instead of people using their words, they are used by their words, and this fact is unrecognized.”  This is the essence of tribal culture. So a tribal leader who wishes to take a team to the next level must upgrade the culture of the team by upgrading its language.

But here’s the rub.   Teams can only move one level at a time.  According to the authors, you can’t take a Stage Two tribe and jump it up to Stage Four; it has to develop the competency of Stage Three first.  That’s why leaders who take an disengaged group of people with a dismal culture and try to instill “we” language fails.  That team must pass through the “I’m great” stage first, in which the focus is on individual greatness rather than group greatness.

This was an epiphany for me.  So many of the tribes I work with are government agency tribes stuck at Stage Two.  They’ve been subjected to endless cuts, furloughs and a recent government shut-down. They’ve been reorganized over and over and don’t understand why.  They are political pawns, constantly denigrated in the public media and forced to defend their worth.  It’s no wonder they’re in Stage Two, where victim stories predominant.  “My life sucks and there’s nothing I can do about it, it’s just me against the machine.”  And a consultant can’t just drop in for a couple days and convince them there’s power in their group if only they can band together and align on mission, vision and values.  They have to believe they’re individually valuable first, which is challenging when some news pundit on Fox News tells them how worthless they are on a daily basis.

The lesson for leadership trainers is clear, however. Our focus should be on teaching leaders to use language and performance management systems to upgrade Stage Two to Stage Three.  Facilitating someone’s journey from “my life sucks” to “I’m great” requires recognizing and leveraging their strengths, building confidence, and giving continuous positive feedback.  Good thing we already teach that.

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