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  • Writer's pictureOliver Nowak

Tribal Leadership - Fostering Human Instinct in our Transformation

What is a tribe?

Continuing on from the previous blog, I wanted to look at the concept of leadership in more detail. Again, this concept of Tribal Leadership was first introduced to me in Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings Book. He used this to describe the effectiveness of his Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers teams and the progress they had made en route to their successes. Fascinated by how leadership impacted the success of his basketball teams, I wanted to see how this translated into the success and failure of organisations and, more specifically, their digital transformations.

The concept was developed by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright after researching 24,000 people across 24 organisations across the world. The conclusion was that it is in our genetic code to form what they refer to as ‘tribes’. These are naturally occurring groups of 20-150 people who share the same beliefs and behaviours which are all centred around a common culture.

What I mean by ‘naturally’ is that it is purely instinctive, we are not told to form these tribes, it happens automatically. With this in mind, you might ask: if we don’t pick our tribes consciously, what are the forces that guide us to choose one over another?

The answer to that is culture. By definition, culture is a set of behaviours and a language that is characteristic of a certain group relative to another. For example, a behaviour indicative of the British culture is our propensity to moan about the weather. People fall into these tribes based on the alignment of their individual behaviours and personality traits to the culture of that specific tribe. It is human instinct to feel belonging, to fit in and to impress our peers. Our expression of this is the joining of a tribe where this instinct is satisfied.

The importance of the number 20-150

I want to briefly talk about the importance of the group size that Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright have established as being important. These numbers are centred around group dynamics and the minimum number of people required to reinforce a certain behaviour and the maximum number of people you can have in a group before you start developing rebel factions.

So we have marked a tribe out as a group of people that orientate themselves around the same cultural beliefs and identity, 20 is the smallest number of people you need in order to strongly embed those beliefs into an identity. Say you’re surrounded by 19 people with very similar beliefs to you, who are informing you on how you should change your behaviour in order to fully buy into their cultural identity. There’s not going to be a lot of doubt in your head that it’s the right thing to do. By comparison, when you’re the potential 5th member and you’ve only got 4 people guiding you of their beliefs, that doubt is going to be much greater.

A tribe of 150 members is generally seen as the saturation point, that’s not to say the 151st member is no longer allowed to join, but it’s when you start getting to the point where you get rebel factions within the tribe. The word ‘rebel’ often has negative connotations but I don’t mean it negatively here, it simply means they have slightly adapted their beliefs and behaviours enough that it has caused them to stray away from the identity of the original group. As the tribe grows, so too do these rebel factions, and with it, they grow in power until they are self-sufficient enough to break off into their own independent tribes.

The reason why this is so important is that the size of your organisation is going to dictate the number of tribes you have within it. Small organisations, if they have hired effectively, are only going to consist of one tribe. Larger organisations, however, regardless of how well they have hired, will consist of multiple tribes. But, how does this relate to digital transformations?

As I have often discussed, potentially the largest stumbling block in any digital transformation is adoption. In smaller organisations, the leadership team only has to relate to the one tribe in order to get 100% adoption. This is often what people refer to as ‘running a company like a start up’ - the flexibility and agility in running the organisation comes from the fact that any adoption campaigns by leadership can specifically relate to the cultural identity of that one tribe. Adoption should be easy.

Alternatively, in larger organisations, the adoption campaign of any technology is a lot more complicated because it has to span multiple tribes with different cultural identities. Often the easy way out here is to generate a generalised campaign that suits everyone. However, this is a lot less specific, speaks a lot less clearly to the individual tribe cultures and often results in a lot of doubt. Adoption is difficult.

The alternative, and for me, often a sign of effective leadership, is the ability to relate to every single one of these multiple tribes. This comes from the ability to relate to a tribe and its culture, even if you personally don’t share those beliefs yourself.

The different Tribal Stages

Unfortunately, it’s not simply a case of waking up one morning and deciding that from now on you’re going to relate to every tribe within your organisation. The complexities go much further than that. Therefore, to simplify matters, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright have broken tribes down according to different cultural stages of development. These 5 stages are:

  • Stage 1: (2% of all tribes) Despair - the collective view that “life sucks”. Systematically sever relationships from existing tribes and come together to form a new tribe with people that think like they do.

  • Stage 2: (25% of all tribes) Victim Mentality - “Life in general isn’t bad, only my life is.” How much innovation can take place in an environment where people are constantly saying how bad their life is? These individuals are naturally defeatist, regardless of what you tell them or show them, they’ll say they’ve seen it all before.

  • Stage 3: (49% of all tribes) Lone Warriors - “I’m great, but you’re not.” People that need to win but only if it means that you lose. They want to help but continuously get frustrated by those that don’t match their level of ambition. My experience means I know better. “I”, “Me” and “My” are the 3 most commonly used words. “My project is a bigger priority”, “It should be led by me because of XYZ”. In Stage 3 there’s management, but there’s no leadership.

  • Stage 4: (22% of all tribes) Pride in the group, “It’s us against the world” - “I’m great” becomes “We’re great”; the group values unite everyone. They only have outside adversaries and generally value fun and creativity because they feel like they are contributing to something greater than their individual competence.

  • Stage 5: (2% of all tribes) “Life is great” - A unified vision and subconscious togetherness that produces a self-perpetuating cocktail of inspiration. Doing something where the act of doing it is enough, the outcome is irrelevant because there is simply a love of the process. The idea of the ‘other’ or the ‘competitor’ goes away because the group identity is solely focused on its own values. This is where you get industry changing innovation.

These stages do not go up in equal intervals. Instead, they more closely represent an exponential scale, the effort required to move from Stage 1 to 2 is much smaller than from Stage 2 to 3, which is smaller still than from Stage 3 to 4 etc.

Why are some groups of people more successful than others?

Research finds that 75% of tribes are ineffective. As is evidenced by the above, most of our tribes are caught in that middle ground. This relates to what the famous management consultant, Peter Drucker, has been quoted as saying: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

If you look at most failing digital transformations, it is not their strategies that are flawed, but their ability to implement that strategy. And that is a reflection of their culture. Too many organisations are caught in Stage 3, a group of individuals rather than a group with a unified vision. To change their fortunes it is important to consider: What is a good culture? and How do we get there?

In terms of answering the question, what is a good culture? The answer is simple, let nature take its course and people will naturally fall into the tribes that they belong to. In fact, my explicit advice is: do nothing. The less we do, the more natural the formation of our tribes becomes and the more natural the ensuing culture as they mature.

The question of ‘how do we get there?’ is slightly more complex, and is something I have already touched on above. We need a leadership team that speaks the language of all tribes, whether they’re Stage 1 or Stage 5. Success comes from the advancement of the tribes through these stages. However, in their research, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright found that tribes can only hear one level above and below where they are. Progression occurs through a series of nudges rather than through an epiphany that carries the tribe all the way over from Stage 2 to Stage 5.

We need those well-rounded leaders because we need a vision not only for the digital outlook of the organisation, but for the people themselves, if we are to succeed. As I have often alluded to, if you don’t get the people onboard, it doesn’t matter if you have the most effective digital transformation strategy in the world, it won’t work.

Identifying each of the stages - How do we move forward?

So how do we achieve these nudges?

I’m going to skip Stage 1 because this is not likely to be relevant to any business organisation and skip straight through to Stage 2.

We can identify Stage 2 in negativity, avoiding accountability, a defeatist mindset, and a lot of ‘What’s the point?’ going on in the workplace.

How do we transition to Stage 3? - The leader needs to find a person within the group who sees the potential, they want things to be different, they have hope because they see the potential.

How does that person facilitate change? - I have already said that people can only hear and understand one stage above and one stage below them. We need to shift them to an ‘I’m great’ mentality. We need to help them realise how they have an integral part to play in that vision you have created for the organisation and how it can only be achieved with their input and their unique strengths.

How do we transition to Stage 4? - After we have fostered the group into Stage 3, we’ve created a group of individuals with the mantra ‘I’m great now and everyone else isn’t’. As a leader, it now becomes about tying the group together. Rather than ‘We only achieve our goals through solely your input, we move to: ‘we only achieve our goals through the group effort’. That sort of battle cry sometimes works, sometimes it doesn’t. More effective still is a little subtlety, a quiet word of ‘Ok, if I’ve nurtured greatness in you, then please can you go out and do for someone else what I did for you’. Then that person does the same for someone else and soon the message of unification has filtered throughout the organisation.

What is that message of unification? - You start to talk in terms of values. ‘Do this because this is the value I’ve drawn from it’. An identity of greatness starts to form based on values that the leader nurtured in the tribal equivalent of Patient 0. I make this link because, if we’re lucky, these positive values rapidly infect the whole group. Now the group has transitioned to ‘Look at what we’ve built, we’re great and everyone else out there isn’t’.

How do we transition to Stage 5? - The first question to ask here is: Why is this so elusive? To build a subconscious, 100% value based identity we have to have total stability at Stage 4. Not only do we need the group to buy into the same philosophy, but we need them to buy into it so much that it is irrelevant what other tribes are doing out there. The focus becomes ‘what is our contribution to the world’, in a digital transformation context it’s the total buy-in into the philosophy that digital transformation will make them, not only the best organisation in the world, but the best in history. The focus becomes about the process of digital transformation rather than the goals, purely because there is no goal, we don’t know what we’re aiming for because it’s never been done before. It’s pretty clear why that is so elusive.


To close off, people need goals, they need to have something to focus on, something to aim for. As a result, in many modern organisations becoming a digitally transformed organisation has become that goal. My take is, we need a goal, fact. But rather than putting a ceiling over ourselves, make the achievement orientated around the process. Easier said than done, I know. For me, it starts with recognising that we need to allow ourselves to start behaving more like we instinctively want to, only then can we create the tribes that form the foundation on which we can mature. Only then can we truly transform.

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1 comentário

14 de dez. de 2020

Interesting article, have seen this view of tribes before but it’s still a key piece of why things are so difficult to deploy. equally, have you considered that the product itself has to be intrinsicly sound and indeed positively beneficial to drive mass adoption? Windows, Apple devices etc all achieve high adoption as the impact works.

are some digital transformation programmers too ambitious and should be more targeted to those who will adopt and make a bigger difference? I wonder sometimes if the huge effort to transform everything and everyone should be tailored to strong “tribes” who will maximize the impact? Just a thought.

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