Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Critique of Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King & Halee Fischer-Wright

I finished listening to the audio book Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King & Halee Fischer-Wright (available free here thanks to which presents the 5 stages of corporate tribes depicted below.

The descriptive aspects of the book were right on, based on research, and useful to know. For instance, I found it interesting, though not surprising, that dysfunctional tribes (stages 1 - 3) make up a whopping 75% of the corporate world. (While at first glance it seems like only the first two stages are inherently dysfunctional, Stage Three "I'm great" is dysfunctional because of the inherent corollary "you're not great." This "I'm great and you're not" dynamic creates a tribe of defensive, isolated, overworked, and angry people.)

Though I agree with the authors' mapping of corporate stages, unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of non-fiction literature, things went a little awry when the authors got prescriptive. Specifically, the authors present the solutions to the dysfunctions of Stages 1-3 as primarily a change in mindset to be initiated by a "Tribal Leader"-- the leader just needs to lead the confused worker out of their funk, and voilĂ , they'll create a more positive work atmosphere. Which is a bit of a truism.

For instance, the book says if you're leading a group of people from Stage 2 "My life sucks" to Stage 3 "I'm great", you'll want to spot and work with the few members who want things to be different and explain that you see potential in them and you want to start working with them on developing leadership. However, the authors warn us that "depending on how long he has been at stage two, he may have developed an immunity to praise believing it to be a technique of manipulation." Their solution to this: lead them (manipulate them?) into thinking they're not being manipulated.

What's missing here is an understanding of the complexity of the situation. The fact is, when it comes to stage two, their lives probably do suck. They're probably working jobs that make use of none of their potential. They're probably working for companies who are focused on making money. They're tired of being a cog in someone else's machine. They're tired in general. And leading this miserable person into stage 3 by getting them to place their frustration on to someone else seems like a strange technique to advocate.

The book justifies this by saying that once the frustration is lifted from their own life and placed on to those who aren't as good (Stage 3), they can then push through to Stage 4 "We're great" whereby everyone in the tribe's frustration is again displaced-- this time on to the tribe's competitors.

This seems to make sense. However, these stages are not a fully developmental sequence: not all businesses start at level 1 and then move on to level 2, and so on. A brand new business could exist anywhere on the scale. So if a business could potentially start up at level 4, why all the talk about needing to drag employees through all the lower stages?

It's because many, if not most, jobs out there are hard to make satisfying. And once you're unsatisfied, it's an incremental process to making yourself feel better. If you're life sucks because of your job the one thing you can do is work to become better than other people- and then at least you'll feel a little self worth, if only in relation to those who have lesser worth than you. And once you realize you're better than most at your sucky job, and you're tired of being around people who suck, maybe then you'll have a break through and realize the people you work with don't suck as much as the people at that other company. Maybe then you'll have successfully tricked yourself into thinking that things aren't so bad at your sucky job... of course, this would all be much easier if you didn't have to trick yourself, and instead you had a tribal leader to do all the tricking.

I mock, but the fact is, a full treatment of these stages would involve all of the physical, social and institutional factors that cause people to be satisfied or dissatisfied with their jobs and wouldn't focus solely on the internal psychological patterns for coping with job dissatisfaction.


The Author, Dave Logan, responded(!):


Co-author's Response

Hi everyone,

The thoughtfulness of this discussion is refreshing.

Three quick points. First, Tribal Leadership is only about the lower left quadrant (culture). We argue, consistent with the thinking on this topic going back to Ed Schein, that culture cannot be measured directly, so we use language and structure of relationships as a proxy. The point about the subject needing to more complex is right on. For a business to move from "stage two" to "stage three," for example, requires address all of the other quadrants, including systems (lower right), individual behavior (upper right), and individual interior development (upper left). So why right an incomplete book? Because as people familiar with the integral movement have noted, almost all the action is on the two right quadrants. A lot of the self-help books get at the upper right quadrant, although with a stunning lack of insight. So culture has remained relatively unexplored in the mainstream business market. Not surprisingly, organizations often create new strategies and systems that cannibalize culture, resulting in an impotent organization. We wrote Tribal Leadership to fill in this gap, and as I mentioned to Ken when interviewing him for the book, as an "integral light" book.

Second, on the point about "why not get it right from the start," that's valid, and in fact, we devote a significant part of the book to that topic. Unlike the "Good to Great" argument, we didn't find that a culture can be built great and that it remains great. Unless it is constantly attended to, culture erodes, down to stage three or two. Most big companies have big, dumb cultures that can't innovate or motivate people. The challenge in those cases is to elevate their cultures as they also work on upgrading systems, strategies, individual performance, and hopefully, developing people through the individual stages that are familiar to people on this web site.

Third, on people's lives sucking, all of the points made here (including in the comments) are valid. Pragmatically, it's not about giving them a pass or manipulating them, it's about empowering them in a way that they can then empower others. We're not proponents of "stop sucking or lose your job," or any kind of trickery. It's about giving people opportunities and then seeing what they do. I've been in cultures that were so stuck in the mud that the victim mentality became invisible to people, including to me. This is not about creating blame, but we have to recognize that organizations can be, to quote the critical literature on the subject, "psychic prisons." Look at the recent numbers on employee engagement. Many people feel that their lives suck, in part, because we put them in rigid job descriptions, ask them to do mindless and uncreative work while tightening their belts and remaining motivated. Those same organizations reject ideas not invented by the people in power. So there is a sense where management needs to take responsibility for creating environments that pull people down to stage two ("my life sucks").

Anyway, thanks for the comments. My life sucks--time for coffee. :)


I like his response.

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