Becoming a Tribal Leader in Just *GASP* 5 Actionable Steps

Illustration of a group of people following a tribal leader

Tribal leadership sounds like a weird, meaningless buzzword, but we swear it isn’t. I mean, you’ve probably heard it before–during a tedious business lecture, maybe, or mentioned by your boss. But it has meaning! (YES). WE’RE NOT LYING!

If you’re a leader, community manager, or someone who just wants to build a better connection between the people you work with, then this post is for you.

What is a tribe?

Let’s see. The dictionary defines it as “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.

But–according to Dave Logan, aka the author of the book Tribal Leadership, aka the expert on company culture and organization–a “tribe” is a group of 20 to 150 who know each other enough that, if they randomly saw another walking down the street, they’d stop to say hello.

Basically? A group of people where everyone knows everyone. (These groups form naturally).

Confused? Here are some examples of tribes you might be in:

  1. Your office “tribe”, which consists of you and your coworkers.
  2. A weekly class you’re in.
  3. Your extended family, if it’s big enough. (Like mine, which recently reached 100 members. I’m not bragging. I promise).

According to Logan, there are five distinct stages of tribes. At the first stage, tribes are disorganized and unproductive. At the fifth and final stage, they’re harmonious and…productive. We want the fifth stage, not the first.

Let’s get acquainted with them.

Stage 1: Life Sucks.

These tribes are made up of hostile, destructive outcasts that have severed their relationships with functional tribes. In the workplace, Stage 1 tribes might create scandals and spread gossip, steal from the company, or even threaten violence.

Their language: “Did you hear about the scandal? I think Boss and the secretary are having an affair.”

It’s rare to find Stage 1 tribes and employees in the workplace, but they do appear occasionally. They’re usually the ones instigating issues + conflicts.

Stage 2: My Life Sucks

The attitude in a Stage 2 tribe is one of apathy and victimhood. Members of these types of groups believe ardently that they are victims, and behave reactively instead of proactively.

I mean, just think about it: when all a group talks about is how much their life sucks (without bothering to do something about it), then nothing gets done. No innovation. No progress. No positivity.

Their language: “Management doesn’t value me enough. Nothing will ever change. This idea is useless.”

Stage 2 employees rarely contribute, and they have very little personal attachment to their job, their duties, their teams, or their company.

Stage 3: I’m Great, You’re Not

This is the stage where most tribes stagnate. (About 49% of workplace tribes are at Stage 3). Though these groups are often full of intelligent people, their members are egoistic and egotistic.

Everything is a competition between them, and their main concern is either coming out on top or proving that they’re the best. If everyone is busy trying to bring the other members of the tribe down, then nothing gets built.

Though the members of a Stage 3 tribe are confident and successful, they aren’t yet able to truly collaborate with their peers.

Because they’re still focused on competing with other members of the team, they’re loathe to share information out of fear that someone will do better than them.

Their language: “I got a promotion. I did a great job. My project was the best. I have a great idea, you should all listen to me. I don’t get enough support. The other members of the team aren’t as committed as I am.”

Stage 3 employees are loyal first and foremost to themselves. They usually have one-on-one relationships (called dyads), and don’t socialize much outside of that.

Stage 4: We’re Great, They’re Not

Stage 4 tribes have learned to appreciate their company (and each other), but their loyalty is limited to people in their in-group, teams, and company.

Still, it’s great that they’re excited to work together for the good of their peers. They have a sense of community and family, and share core values.

They also believe that the work they do is important.

In a Stage 4 tribe, information moves more freely, because employees recognize that sharing information is beneficial to the team as a whole. When a misunderstanding or disagreement arises, the focus is on repairing the relationship, not 1) gossiping or 2) trying to manipulate the situation for personal gain.

Stage 4 employees usually form triads, which are groups of 3 peers that work together and communicate. Triads serve as the building blocks for Stage 4 tribes.

Their language: “How can we solve this problem together? Don’t forget to let Paul know about the meeting.”

Stage 5: Life is Great

Stage 5 tribes are hard to come by, and for good reason.

In a Stage 5 tribe, employees no longer focus on competing with other companies.

Instead, their goals are a bit more lofty– they’re thinking about how they can make positive impacts as individuals, as teams, and as a company in order to improve the world.

What’s the difference between Stage 4 and Stage 5?


The focus isn’t on “our” values–it’s on universal values. Do you participate in a tribe that has very little fear, conflict, and stress?

If so, then congratulations: you belong in a Stage 5 tribe.

These tribes often change the world and make groundbreaking innovations.

Different people in the same tribes can be at different stages. Sometimes, a loud, aggressively negative person can bring down the synergy and positivity of a group, so it’s important to keep track of who’s at what stage.

This can help you develop plans that will best address the issue.

Their language: “How can we serve the world? How can we make peoples’ lives easier?”

Why would I want to be a tribal leader?

The thought of coming home and telling your loved ones that you’re a tribal leader is pretty daunting. I mean, what will they think?

Imagine: You, nearly naked, with nothing but a loincloth to cover your privates. A wild, bedraggled mess of hair, infested with bugs. An unreasonable amount of hootin’ and hollerin’ around the office. Chest-beating. Chest-bumping. A slick sheen of sweat that would take hours to scrub away.



But you can become a tribal leader without all that, and you should! It won’t just unleash your wild side. Tribal leadership:

  • Helps people collaborate and work towards causes they believe in.
  • Reduces fear and stress in the workplace by alleviating interpersonal friction.
  • Pushes the tribe to seek leadership instead of rejecting it.
  • Promotes organization and efficiency.
  • Builds a culture of openness and friendliness
  • Creates an atmosphere of cooperation, not competition.
  • Improves employee wellbeing, as people report feeling more alive.


(Please say yes.)

ONWARDS. I promised 5 actionable steps that would help you master the art of tribal mastery a la Tarzan, and here they are:

1. Build on yourself.

Remember–you can’t lead your tribe to Stage 4 or beyond if you yourself are still at Stage 3. By focusing on improving yourself, you’ll be able to get to a point where you can help others, too.

  1. Keep track of your time with Toggl, and keep track of your team with a database. Staying organized is one of the keys to being a proactive, productive leader.
  2. Address mistakes, not people. Berating people and blaming systems is a Stage 2 thing to do. By addressing the mistake and pivoting to build a solution, you can lead your team forward and promote a positive atmosphere.

2. Surround yourself with good friends.

A good leader has to have good friends–if you’re trying to kick a procrastination habit, surrounding yourself with fellow procrastinators is only going to only drag you down (cue that awful 1D song).

Wouldn’t it be better to find study buddies that are driven and focused on meeting deadlines?

Basically, find friends who encourage your good habits, not your bad ones.

One great rule that helps reinforce this step is to outnumber yourself with people who are better than you. (Sure–it can be a little bit painful to admit that, but jealousy is, after all, a Stage 3 sentiment…).

3. Build your team.

The most important part of building your team is identifying the language of your new recruits.

For example: if you’re trying to lead a group of burnt-out, underpaid doctors, you can’t open by saying, “Anything is possible! We’re going to change the world!”

That kind of talk could yelled at, or possibly even run out of the building.

Instead, talk a language that your audience understands–Logan recommends speaking, at most, one stage above where the group currently is.

4.  Start moving people up the ladder.

Different stages, different tactics. Follow these general guidelines:

From 2 to 3:

In a Stage 2 group, the atmosphere is chockful of complaints, blame, and overall…sadness. Good news: there are bound to be people who are just sick of it. These people, deep down, usually want something to change.

Keep your eyes peeled for these folks. They might try to interject by offering a suggestion, or look as if they really, really want to say something.

Talk Stage 3 language to them individually, by saying, “Hey, I think you have real potential to lead. What do you think? Do you want to play a bigger role?”

If they agree, then give them responsibility. Lead a new program. Join you in your plan for world-domination. Provide input.

By giving them a say, they’ll feel a personal stake in the success of the team. And if they take you up on your offer of leadership, then you’ve just moved that person from Stage 2 to 3.

Hopefully? They’ll pass it on.

From 3 to 4:

Find out what people in the team value by “asking them a series of open-ended questions. Then, start constructing multi-person initiatives.” Try these:

  • Why do you want to be a part of this team?
  • What improvements do you think the team could make?
  • Why do you come to work each day?

Since Stage 3 is all about the ego, moving up will require teamwork. Logan says, “Make it impossible for people to succeed without partnering with someone else.”

Remember– Stage 3 teams tend to group in pairs. And Stage 3 employees want to have control, but they don’t want to lose to others.

To throw a wrench in their plans, start building triads that are anchored on shared values. They don’t always have to be work-related. You could build groups based on favorite foods (sushi), or favorite movies (Three Billboards, or favorite hobbies (collecting stamps). Essentially, find something that gets your team excited.

(Psst–if you’re still having trouble building a cohesive company culture, try one of these awesome team-building games).

5. To infinity and beyond!

From 4 to 5:

Here’s what you should remember about Stage 5 teams: they’re unstable, especially in business. If you’re a leader and you’re graded on how well you’re competing with the competition, then you don’t have to move your tribe to Stage 5.

Because it’s hard–focusing on a competitor is much easier than trying to create something that will change the whole dang world.

Plus, the returns that are delivered from Stage 5 endeavors aren’t immediately measurable.

If you’re running a startup, or have a lot of creative freedom, then go for it. After all, Stage 5 tribes produce products and services that change the world. The momentum afforded when people start thinking about how to serve people rather than the company can “push a tribe into a realm of pure creativity, pure leadership, pure innovation”.

Stage 5 tribes don’t really compete with other businesses as much as they compete with industry-wide obstacles. And the things they create have lasting impacts on the world, not just the company. Think Volvo’s 3-point seat-belt, or Apple’s iPhone.

Let’s wrap it up.

You might be surprised to learn that tribes don’t all have to be based in an office. It’s perfectly possible to build a perfectly healthy tribe with remote employees.

Plus, studies on high-stage tribes have shown that even when members leave the workplace, the tribe stays in contact with them.

Becoming more aware of the sheer power of tribes and harnessing them for good is a great way to jumpstart your company. If you’ve implemented these tips, let us know–we love to hear from our fellow gorilla tribes.

March 29, 2018