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A tribal leadership tactic for evolving cultures from 'I'm great' to 'We're great'

The theory of tribal leadership starts with the idea that organizations can be categorized into five tribes. 

Slide - The stages of tribal leadership.
Organizations can be described by 5 tribal stages and you can recognize the stage by the language of the tribe. 

You can recognize the tribes by listening for certain key phrases or versions of these phrases within an organization. Here is how to recognize the different stages. 

Stage 1 is “Life sucks.” This is the stage of prisons or criminal organizations. It is a stage of no hope. 

Stage 1 of tribal leadership

Stage 2 is defined by the key phrase “My life sucks.” The version of this that I most often hear is “My job sucks.” 

Here are a couple of examples from my past. During college, I spent a summer roofing. That summer taught me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life roofing. It’s a tough job. In my book, anyone who does this for a living is impressive. It wasn’t for me, though, and the people who I was working with all wanted to get out of roofing, too. So this particular culture I was in was a Stage 2. 

Stage 2 of tribal leadership

The other example I use of a Stage 2 culture I was in once was a fast food restaurant. One of my co-workers was a Ku Klux Klan member. It was not a good culture.

Does this mean every fast food restaurant is a Stage 2 culture? No. From what I’ve seen in my experience though, many of them are. 

Stage 3 is defined by the phrase “I’m great.” This is the culture of lone wolf professionals who aren’t operating as a team. 

Examples I use here are surgeons, IT professionals, lawyers, police, etc. It isn’t true for every group of these individuals, but anywhere you have a group of professionals, listen to hear whether they say, “I’m great,” or whether they say “We’re great.” 

Stage 3 of tribal leadership

Stage 4 is the “We’re great” tribe. At this level, you will see teams functioning at a high level of performance. 

“We’re great” tribes are groups of professionals who have figured out how to work with each other. This can happen in any organization.  

Stage 4 of tribal leadership

Stage 5 is the unicorn stage. You can identify this culture when you hear people talking about how everything is great. It is very rare and also tends to be an unstable culture. You sometimes see this with political or religious movements. For this reason, I characterize it by calling it the “Wakanda” stage. , 

The following chart helps give you an understanding of where organizations tend to fall. 


Using triads to move a culture from Stage 3 to Stage 4 

The exercise that I use to demonstrate triads and how to use triads is based on metaphoric relationships, or what I like to call super powers. 

Think of a person that you value and fill in the following phrase: You are my _____________. 

The blank represents what this person means to you. It could be something like: 

  • Mentor
  • Lover
  • Accomplice
  • Inspiration
  • Co-conspirator
  • Teacher
  • Best friend
  • Inspiration
  • Confidante

The example that I use here is an uncle of mine. A few years back, there was a major story in the news about a guy who saved his nephew from a shark. This prompted me and my sister to ask the question: Which of our uncles would have saved us from a shark? 

The answer was obvious: I have exactly one uncle who would have saved us from a shark. He’s an old school Florida redneck who I love to death. When we told him about how we voted on which uncle would save us from a shark and he won, he thought it was really funny but he also took it as a sincere compliment. 

If you can honestly find someone’s talent and point of pride, you have their super power. 

Using metaphoric relationships in triads

A triad is a group of three people. Triads are one of the keys to advancing from “I’m great” to “We’re great.” 

The exercise that I use to demonstrate how to use metaphoric relationships to form triads looks like the following: 

  1. Form or think of a group of three people 
  2. Find out what each of the other two people is good at, i.e. their super powers. Consider questions like:
    • Where have they worked? 
    • What are they good at? 
    • What do they like to do? 
    • What means the most to them? 
  3. Test your assumptions by complimenting them on their super power. If you truly have identified a super power, the person will usually light up. 
  4. Now the key to a triad is figuring out: How could your two team members work together? How could they compliment each other? 
    • Think about how you would introduce them to each other if they were meeting for the first time.
    • How would you tell each of them what they’re good at? 
    • One of the examples I use here is think about if you are remodeling your bathroom and you found a good carpenter and a good plumber and needed them to work together.
  5.  A triad relationship is when each person in the triad is responsible for the relationship between the other two, when each person in the triad acts like a tribal leader. 

Tips for moving a tribe from “I’m great” to “We’re great” 

  1. Practice listening for the 5 stages in conversations to identify tribal cultures.
  2. Practice speaking at all 5 stages.
  3. Remember that tribes generally move up or down by only one stage at a time. You can’t move a Stage 2 tribe to Stage 4. You have to move through 3 to get to 4. This is why it’s important to have people who think “I’m great.” Because if you can’t get a group to “I’m great,” you won’t get them to “We’re great.”   
  4. Make triads the smallest unit for meetings.
  5. Establish a peer coaching circle for those speaking at your stage, and +1 stage up. 

David Akadjian is the author of The Little Book of Revolution: A Distributive Strategy for Democracy (print or ebook). 

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