Tribal Leaders – creating a tribal culture

After extensive study and research about leadership styles, developing leadership and learning about leadership – I can draw one conclusion: the more you develop yourself as a leader, the less of a leader you are.  How could this be?

After reading quotes and speaking to business leaders I know, they each had the same answer: “Don’t ask me. I didn’t do anything!” The answer became very clear: the leader does not shape the organisation. It’s the culture. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, any day of the week!

The successful leaders were the ones who stopped focusing on themselves, and created a world-class culture. This made their leadership appear effortless to both them and everyone around them because they leveraged the strength of the entire group, or ‘tribe’. So it doesn’t matter how many books you read, or how much training you’ve had, it doesn’t even matter if you are strong at execution. You could be checking off to-dos left and right with efficiency that would make Donald Trump cry, and yet still you would not create a thriving business.

Tribal Culture – so, we now know the key to having a world class organisation is to develop a world class culture. But what is culture exactly? And where can it be seen? A better question is actually where can culture be heard, because culture lives in language. If you think about it, most of our work is made up of communication… emails, meetings, documents, proposals, instructions… they all live in the domain of language.

There are five stages of language that determine the culture of the tribe:

Stage 1 “Life sucks” – here, people say life is unfair, and to survive, anything is permissible. Stage 1 runs the show in criminal clusters, like gangs and prisons, where the theme is ‘life sucks,’ and people act out in despairingly hostile ways. In a corporate sense, this could be seen in the Miners’ Strike in the 80’s.

Stage 2 “MY life sucks” – people in this stage are passively antagonistic; crossing their arms in judgment yet never getting interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic, resigned. Their speech deflects accountability, instead placing blame for their situation on others.

Stage 3 “I’m great” – “I’m great” (or, more fully), “I’m great, and you’re not.” People at this stage have to win, and winning is personal. They’ll out-work, think, and manoeuvre their competitors. The mood that results is a collection of ‘lone warriors,’ wanting help and support and being disappointed that others don’t have their ambition or skill. Sentences include “I,” “me,” or “my,” as in: “I work harder than anyone else,” “I try harder,” and “I’m really good at my job.”

Stage 4 “We’re great” – this is the zone of Tribal Leaders who focus people on their aspirations, and define measurable ways to make a worldwide impact. At Stage 4, people use “we” language, and the basis of comparison is shared values. For example, you’ll hear: “We’re doing important work,” “we work harder for our customers,” and “we win because we’re more dedicated.” Stage 4 is by all accounts a superior culture. However, there is one higher stage, the upper echelon of organisations that is rarely achieved. This is where the language shifts from “we’re better” to “we can make a difference.”

Stage 5 “Life is great” – teams at Stage 5 have produced miraculous innovations. At Stage 5, values and vision are the only compass – not relative benchmarks against a competitive group. You’ll hear “we’re pioneers – no one has been here before,” “our mission is all that matters,” and “if we didn’t have our values, we wouldn’t know who we are.”

The ultimate goal is for a tribe to arrive at Stage 5. It is the place where organisations stand to define the way things are done.  As a leader, you can go directly to Stage 5. However, once you understand the culture of your organisation, it is only possible to go from one stage to the next. In other words, if you are working with people at Stage 2 who believe their life sucks (you can hear it in phrases as simple as “I have way too much to work to do”) your role as a Tribal Leader it to advance them to Stage 3 where they realise they’re great. Only then can they advance to Stage 4 as a team player.

With these language cues in mind, listen for them in your own business, and hear how the tribal culture and the success of the company go hand in hand.

By Tom Robinson

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