Book Report and Lessons: Tribal Leadership

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By Jonathan Calmus

Mar 14, 2020

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This month the Cosmic team read “Tribal Leadership – Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization”. Many times the word culture, especially in a company is seen as a silly topic or a topic that is out of focus, when in reality it is the most important element of any group or “tribe”. Most likely because the word “culture” is somewhat of a buzz word or jargon in the sense that it has lost its meaning through redefinitions and misinterpretations.

So let’s take this opportunity to define some important terms. First off the book defines a tribe as a group with shared values and objectives of no more than 150 people and no less than 20. So if your organization or company has more than 150 people, it most likely has multiple tribes running in parallel. This is a good segue into the intended purpose of the book. Hopefully us as leaders are able to create organizations in which the strategy, vision and values are shared and aligned.

The best way to achieve that is by enabling and empowering leadership in our teams. This makes it so that we can interface and connect with all of our teams, staff, employees and contractors through the pyramid of our leadership structures.

The authors, David Logan and John King argue that a “tribe” is the most powerful unit in any given organization. To the point that they hold greater organizational power and influence than even the CEO. So as a CEO writing this article I am feeling the importance of enabling and selecting the right tribal leaders. I’m assuming this is a similar reason why the saying “One drop of poison ruins the well” exists. Influence and power comes from the ground up / grassroots level and part of that means many times the bonds are to the tribe over any given individual, including the CEO or executive team.

What I liked the most about the book is the systemization of the abstract term “culture”. It removes many of the obscurities and confusion around the reason it’s important. Most people can’t understand how it’s equally as important defining shared values as it is to put out that recurring fire.

The clearly defined and authentic values will guide your team and yourself in the good times and the bad.

Tribal leadership goes on to explain the 5 stages of an organization.

Stage 1: Stage one is the lowest level. There’s a common theme of team members at this stage. It’s “LIFE SUCKS!” Stage one tribes believe that life is completely unfair and hopeless. So it leads to team members being socially withdrawn and associated only with like minded people. As you can assume hopeless people aligning with hopeless people is not a good recipe for growth. Most of the time the result is a culture more similar to prison gangs than it is to a company or organization with clear objectives and shared values. The good news is that this is only about 2% of companies surveyed.

Stage 2: Most of the time in Stage 2 tribes the members feel “my life sucks”. These tribes have well behaved professionals but they lack connections, believe they are not valued and that they cannot succeed. Sage two tribes and members point fingers and blame their counterparts or members in other tribes. They tend to do just enough work to keep their jobs but are not self starters and don’t seek stronger bonds or relationships within the organization or company. It’s estimated that stage 2 tribes occupy about 25% of organizations including some of the biggest and most well respected companies.

Stage 3: The typical mantra at this stage is “I’m Great!” but that comes with an unspoken truth of “And You’re Not”. Not pointing fingers, but stage 3 has the typical hotshot Lawyer/Doctor/Consultant type of personality that encourages these types of personal accomplishments over shared ones. This stage thrives on 2 person or what the book refers to as “dyadic” relationships, meaning they like to dominate control of others. It’s estimated that 50% of high performing organizations are at stage 3.

Stage 4: At stage 4 there is a tribal mantra not a personal one. It’s “We’re great”. At this stage the members of the tribe unite around shared values and hold each other accountable to work together to defeat the competition. Tribal leaders at stage 4 are working to build what is referred to as “triadic” relationships that involve 2 people that don’t know each other but are united by the shared values of the organization and its members. When conflicts arise, the leader encourages the parties to resolve the issue themselves. Tribe members share information and data freely between other tribes in order to be more productive, adaptive and creative. Approximately 22% of tribes are at stage 4.

Stage 5: This is the holy grail in which we are all seeking to focus our teams and tribes around the idea that “life is great”. Typically a tribe moves into stage 5 when they take on a history making project where the path and outcome outweigh the individual needs. Only about 2% of work tribes ever achieve a temporary or permanent state of stage 5.

After taking the time to read/listen to “Tribal Leadership” it can feel a little overwhelming because there are so many variables in company or tribal culture and in most organizations culture trumps strategy because strategy needs to change in real time depending on market conditions. Gimmicks and superficial changes to culture such as the pool table or ping pong table typically only work about 30% of the time and for very short bursts. The most effective path to changing an organization’s culture is by leveraging the naturally forming groups in your organization and unifying them under a central “noble cause” and a set of shared values. The more leaders emphasize values based decision making the more it becomes clear to other members of your organization on how to make decisions that align with the objectives and culture of your organization.

At Cosmic we have drafted our mission statement and values that are important to us as an

If you’re interested in learning more about Tribal Leadership you can check out their site at or buy the book on Amazon at