Tribal Leadership in Practice: A Coach’s Perspective

By Brad Barton, Mark Ferraro, and Si Alhir

We — Brad (@Brad_Barton), Mark (@mark4ro), and Si (@SAlhir) — have been individually involved in enterprise business and technology transformation, working strategically and tactically with management and teams, for over three decades. While our professional roots are diverse, we independently found our way to the practice of Transformation.

We met during a client transformation engagement (early 2000s), and throughout the engagement, we readily stabilized at Stage 4 and intermittently experienced Stage 5. After the engagement concluded, we returned to our individual consulting practices with sporadic opportunities of working together ever since.

The Book

The publication of the Tribal Leadership book in 2008, with which we had no involvement, was crucial in establishing an acknowledged body of experience (beyond our own experience and other “similar” experiences) around Leadership and Transformation.

Why are we so attracted to Tribal Leadership? Because it resonates with our own experience and because it genuinely does not prescribe a “subordinate follower to leader” model, which plagues so many other approaches to leadership. Furthermore, we are reminded of Mary Parker Follett, who Peter F. Drucker regarded as the “Prophet of Management” and who Gary Hamel regards as the “world’s most prescient management thinker”:

Leader and followers are both following the invisible leader – the common purpose.

Please see Tribal Leadership in a Nutshell for more on Tribal Leadership, including: Tribes and Tribal Leaders, Tribal Stages, Tribal Leadership, and Tribal Strategy.

The Project

While leveraging Tribal Leadership since the book’s publication;  in 2010, we decided to leverage Tribal Leadership explicitly in our client work (while ensuring client confidentiality) and share our experience in this blog. “Leverage Tribal Leadership explicitly” does not mean using anything proprietary from the book’s authors, rather, it means relating/connecting/associating our pre-existing coaching approaches with the concepts in the book (and reporting on this blog).

We individually applied the Tribal Leadership Survey in addition to conducting our own informal assessment/appraisal, and ultimately concluded that our clients were at Stage 2 or Stage 3.

We leveraged coaching conversations to try and upgrade our client cultures, we derived observations and major points (or insights), and then we discussed and consolidated our major points. While our coaching conversations have had some observable impact on our client cultures, the journey continues!

The following major points are elaborated below:

  • Is Tribal Leadership “Real”?
  • Is it Real for the Fast Paced Business World?
  • Language (without Behavior) is Necessary but not Sufficient!
  • Where are We in the Epiphany?
  • Exploring the Noble Cause
  • Do or Die!
  • Rewarding Stage Three Behavior = Inviting Stage Two Outbreak!
  • I believe it, but we’ll never get there with this crew

Major Points

There is substantial detail removed from the descriptions below and there are many other lessons we could derive from the experience, but we focused on what immediately emerged — partially to ensure client confidentiality!

Is Tribal Leadership “Real”?

Some people doubted the “realness” of Tribal Leadership, and particularity the existence of Stage 4. Their doubts, as shared by them, were based on never experiencing Stage 4 and not meeting anyone before who could claim experiencing Stage 4. The lesson we derived is that attempting to understand the whole Tribal Leadership system for those who are predominantly in Stage 2 (and who might not have experienced Stage 3 or 4) may be somewhat overwhelming and cause an immediate reaction of doubt. Generally, our approach is not to merely “introduce” Tribal Leadership, but “practice” it and foster people “experiencing” it, then introduce them to the system more holistically. We have experienced the greatest value of Tribal Leadership when it naturally emerges (through coaching) rather than trying to “educate” everyone on Tribal Leadership and then going to “do it”.

Is it Real for the Fast Paced Business World?

One leader in the organization has experienced Stage 4 in his military experience with the US Marines, but questions how to translate that to business. In the military, the stakes are higher and you need to be Stage 4 to survive, but in business people get away with self-focus and often doing the “minimum” to get by. The politics of business, the daily pressure of the bottom line, customer needs, and the lack of common practices keep him solidly in Stage 3. He likes the concept of Stage 4, but seems overwhelmed with how to get there. The lesson we derived is that even though people may have experienced Stage 4 in a particular context, they may not be able to readily foster it in another context. Generally, our approach is to “organically” help people upgrade their culture rather than presume a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Language (without Behavior) is Necessary but not Sufficient!

Some people, while readily using Stage 4 language, consistently fostered dyadic rather than triadic relationships. The lesson we derived is that language alone is not a good indicator of cultural stage, but only jointly considering language and behavior (fostering dyadic versus triadic relationships) is a reasonable indicator of cultural stage. Generally, our approach is not to merely focus on language or behavior or structure, but consider all of these facets of how people experience their tribe and the reality around them.

One leader solidly in Stage 3 talks of the desire for Stage 4, while at the same time continuing to build dyadic relationships. He is very cautious of “empowerment”. While he knows it’s necessary, he want to ensure it occurs within “the appropriate boundaries” so that “his practices are recognized and retained.” It’s likely he would welcome Stage 4 if he knew how to get there. The lesson we derived is that the chasm between Stage 3 and 4 is indeed “great” (and even perhaps “greater” than many choose to acknowledge). Notice the language: “appropriate boundaries” and “his practices are recognized and retained” — very “I” focused!

Where are We in the Epiphany?

Some people, while readily using Stage 4 language, shared that they care about the whole organization, but at the “end of the day” they were only responsible for their piece of the organization. The lesson we derived is that while this sounded very much like the second part of the Epiphany, it was very difficult to understand the overall time-frame in the transition from Stage 3 to Stage 4 (through the Epiphany), and we could not better understand how long it might take to reach the end of the Epiphany. Generally, while we are very focused on coaching from Stage 2 to 3, 3 to 4, and 4 to 5, we are perhaps even more focused on discovering coaching techniques for “fostering the epiphany”.

Exploring the Noble Cause

Ask around and see if a noble cause can be identified and how well is it aligned to others in the organization. Conversation around the noble cause is a very exploratory process. Saying one “knows” their noble cause or core values is perhaps a very natural response that gives us confidence in dealing with reality, but getting people started in the exploratory process and continuing the exploratory process can be profoundly difficult.

Do or Die!

One practitioner who spent time in Stage 3, is currently solidly entrenched in Stage 2. Positive change is needed soon or he will be looking for another tribe. He openly expressed desire for “empowerment” and “transparency”. He is done trying here! The lesson we derived is that there are time tolerances for those in Stage 2, and if they can’t make progress toward Stage 3, they may become more nomadic!

Rewarding Stage Three Behavior = Inviting Stage Two Outbreak!

While many workers have the desire to find themselves in a Stage 4 culture and regularly demonstrate a propensity to function at this stage, wide-spread organizational recognition and elevation of individuals demonstrating Stage 3 behaviors may cause the majority to function at Stage 2. Organizations that promote Stage 3 individuals effectively reinforce the behaviors that come with Stage 3 and are inviting Stage 2 cultures. Many organizations recognize Stage 4, but don’t know how to get there so they continue to entrench in Stage 3 behavior and language. Others see Stage 4 as not real and continue to operate with a “superhero” mentality. Generally, we commonly experience working with organizations who are at Stage 3 and perpetually reinforce Stage 2, thus, we continue to focus on the importance of the epiphany to move beyond Stage 3 rather than perpetually reinforce this Stage 2 & 3 dynamic.

I believe it, but we’ll never get there with this crew

At multiple organizations, we’ve encountered individuals who believe that advanced stages are only possible when you find yourself working alongside the “right people”. These individuals are clearly demonstrating the Stage 3 “I’m great and you’re not” mentality. While longing for the opportunity to work with people more like themselves they often overlook the role they could play in developing others in their tribe; that is, the opportunity they may have to assist with the development of others rather than looking for “the easy out”. This is perhaps another case that calls for the development of techniques for “fostering the epiphany” with such individuals who may be ripe for coaching.

The Future

We have a deep appreciation for how the authors of the Tribal Leadership book have culminated their research and experience, and our hope is that we can contribute to the Tribal Leadership community as the future unfolds.

Reflecting upon our own experience, we found the following statement to be tremendously impactful:

Give everyone a choice, and then work with the living; don’t try to raise the dead.


3 thoughts on “Tribal Leadership in Practice: A Coach’s Perspective

  1. Si, this entry truly does represent an original contribution to the Tribal Leadership cultural transformation in practice. The authors should sit up and take notice at these insights, I hope! Your collective experience with the barriers to transformation deserve further discussion and scrutiny as I believe you have touched upon some pain points that “ring true” yet were not addressed by the original book. Thanks to the three of you for moving this important topic forward.

    Can you say more in future blog entries about the techniques you are trying to use for fostering epiphany? I’m very intrigued by this point.

  2. Dear Si,

    Thank you so much for your work. Please tell us what
    you do to foster the Stage 2 -> 3 Epiphany and the Stage 3->4 Epiphany…

    How have you dealt with this problem: showing people
    the 5 Tribal Cultures and having people feel ashamed of being Stage 2 or 3? While top managment has seen the value of the TL paradigm and wants a Stage 4 org – the Stage 2s will conspire to sabotoge the upgrade programs andorsed my top managment and coached by me…

    Any insights? Should we not share the TL model with people in public? Not advise them to read the book?
    I am stuck here…please help.

    WE honor your work and care…

    Are people dead or just in a coma? A kiss might awaken them as it did Sleeping Beauty?

    power to you guys to move all this forward.


    • Hello Morgan,

      Thank you for your comment, very much appreciated.

      Regarding upgrading a tribe from stage 2 to stage 3, we coach individuals to actualize themselves through efforts & results that can be accomplished individually, we encourage authentic confidence & independence and encourage individuals to form dyads (dyadic relationships).

      Regarding upgrading a tribe from stage 3 to stage 4, we coach individuals to actualize themselves through efforts & results that require a team, we encourage authentic confidence & interdependence and encourage individuals to form triads (triadic relationships).

      Please see for more information.

      Generally, our approach is not to merely “introduce” Tribal Leadership (by giving people the book or providing training), but “practice” it and foster people “experiencing” it on very explicit project or initiatives, then introduce them to the system more holistically (using the book or training) throughout the journey. We have experienced the greatest value of Tribal Leadership when it naturally emerges (through coaching) rather than trying to “educate” everyone on Tribal Leadership and then going to “do it”.

      We always start with client needs or a problem, and we collaborate to foster a solution that will realize features or capabilities that address those client needs. Through the problem-solving journey, we may introduce Tribal Leadership (among other perspectives) to foster the right solution to the problem within the context of the client. We value people and results and our cause is for the client to self-actualize their potential, and thus we are privileged to foster aspects of the client’s journey, but we remain vigilant that there is not one solution that fits all problems.

      If people are now “feeling shame” (as you describe), we encourage you to foster the notation that there really is no “shame” relative to stages, but people and tribes naturally move one stage at a time while the vast majority of people and tribes become stuck in the middle stages, and our focus ought to be on “unsticking” the tribe (rather than focusing on “shame”).

      We will be posting more on fostering the Epiphany (“I Am Because We Are” very soon.

      Thank you again.

      Brad, Mark, and Si

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