Tribal Leadership by David Logan: How to lead your team to “Life’s Great!”

Tribal Leadership by David Logan is a practical guide to help you elevate the culture and performance of your team. The Tribal Leadership book describes 5 levels of ‘tribes’ (or teams) that can be found within any society, business or family. Developed by Professor David Logan, this tribal leadership framework helps you lead your people to a higher level.

One way of identifying the current level of your tribe is to listen to the language that’s used on a day-to-day basis.

Tribal Leadership, the 5 levels

Level 1: “Life sucks”

This is the lowest level of tribe, the level of “despairing hostility” (typically found in gangs and in prisons). Tribes at this level tend to be detached from society, and most people have little experience of them.

Level 2: “My life sucks”

The culture of many of the most challenging environments: low energy, no innovation, where the tribe is still locked into negativity.

My life sucks. They don’t listen to us; they don’t take our suggestions seriously; nothing will ever change; management’s a bunch of idiots; this idea too shall pass; here we go — here’s another dumb idea.

According to the Professor Logan’s research this level accounts for 25% of workplace cultures.

Level 3: “I’m great, you’re not”

According to Logan, this is the level at which most tribes get stuck: smart people competing to come out on top. Here’s the typical language of a Level 3 tribe:

I have an idea. I have a plan to turn this group around, and I hope you’ll join me in leading this turnaround.

Basically, the message is that “I’m great, and you’re not.” Stage-three group members are personally competitive.

However, today’s complex and fast moving work environment requires teams that function at Level 4 or above.

Level 4: “We’re great”

The biggest challenge is moving teams from Level 3, to Level 4. The secret is to find something that unites the tribe, that is greater than their individual competence. When individuals come together and find something that unites them, something very important happens, the group gels, the language is less “I” and more “we”. The tribe changes from a group of highly motivated but individually-centric people to something larger.  Stage 4 tribes can do remarkable things.

To do this, it’s necessary to explore the personal values of the team, connect those values to the work and encourage relationships that are built around a larger purpose.

Level 5: “Life is great”

This is the final stage of tribal leadership, only a very small percentage of tribes achieve this level.

The secret to leading your tribe higher

Members of the tribe will only respond to encouragement that is one level above their current level. What does this mean in practice? Here’s an example: If you’re faced with a colleague who has the view that “My life sucks!” it’s tempting to respond with “come on, we’re great!” and expect a positive response.

Unfortunately that’s not going to work. It’s just too great a leap.

And this is often the reason why business leadership can’t carry their people with them, too much dissonance between current perceptions and the leadership messaging.

The challenge is to listen to the individuals and lead them higher one step at a time, to build their self-confidence so that they reach Level 3: “I’m great” (without worrying too much about seeing some of the “and you’re not” characteristics!). Once there, you can nudge them on again, step-by-step.

To take them to Level 4 it’s necessary to explore the personal values of the team, connect those values to the work and encourage a large sense of purpose.

Ask yourself about your tribal leadership

  • Which ‘tribes’ are most important to me (your family, social, work tribes)?
  • What level is the tribe currently? (listen for the language you hear, it helps you assess the current level of your tribe)
  • How do I nudge them to the next level?

The core idea: make sure you’re communicating at one level above your tribe, otherwise there will be too much dissonance between their thoughts and your messages, and you won’t be effective in moving them forwards.

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