Tribal Leadership

Interested in culture, and introducing change in organisations? Özlem Yüce has a great intro to the Tribal Leadership stages that is well worth a read. I want to expand on a couple of things, but you really should go read her thing first (and share your view in the poll) otherwise what I’m about to say won’t make much sense. Go ahead, I’ll wait here…

Having explored the concept of Tribal Leadership a little , it strikes me that a lot of politics in democracies taps into the tribal warfare of Stage 4 (“We are great, they are not”). Whilst the actual positions between the two sides may be fairly similar, they often demonise, accentuate and exaggerate the differences. You may notice too, that disagreements between different sects of the same core religion are often more brutal and violent than between religions that share little common ground. At least vilifying the opposition party is a step up from the personality cult (which some might argue the Agile Community suffers from) that seems rooted in the ego of one person rather than a shared sense of identity – more of a Stage 3. Interestingly, you could say that countries where coalition governments are common tend to straddle both Stage 4 and Stage 5 (“We are great and so are they”) – they need to play nicely in order to make any sort of decisions. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this!

Macintosh Team's Pirate Flag (from
Macintosh Team’s Pirate Flag (from

Another suggested example that we discussed for Stage 5 (“We’re great, so are they”) was the team that developed the original Macintosh Computer. Its true that they were focused on making the original Mac a truly groundbreaking product. The problem is that in bringing the team together Jobs actually tapped into some Stage 4 tribal behaviours. They set themselves up in a separate building away from the team working on the LISA, a product that Jobs had been forced out of. He told the team “It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy”, the suggestion being that the rest of Apple was the Navy. They even went so far as to raise a Pirate flag outside the building. It’s hard not to conclude that the language and behaviour (even if mostly a friendly internal rivalry) is more like Stage 4 “We are great, they are not” behaviour.

Perhaps a better example of Stage 5 would be later in Jobs career, when he returned to Apple after his years at NEXT. Jobs gave a speech at MacWorld in 1997 which set the tone for Apple to transcend Stage Four “We are great, they are not” moving up to “We are great and so are they”. When Jobs announced that Apple was going to make Microsoft’s Internet Explorer the default browser on Apple Mac’s, the faithful audience booed him. Microsoft was the evil empire that had stolen their interface design and almost killed them with unfair and anticompetitive behaviour. And here was their hero laying down his sword and inviting the enemy to dinner. They were horrified. Job’s calmed the audience down and spoke clearly to the gathered tribe:

“We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose,” Jobs said. “We have to embrace the notion that for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job. And if others are going to help us, that’s great because we need all the help we can get. And if we screw up and we don’t do a good job, it’s not somebody’s else’s fault. It’s our fault.”

(Don’t forget to go and read about the 5 stages).