The power of tribal leadership

Dr. Tim Rayner

Dr. Tim Rayner

Director of Education and Culture @ the merrier

23 Oct 2018 | 5min read

It takes a village to raise a child and a tribe to launch a startup. We use tribal leadership at The Merrier to promote a creative dynamic in the workplace and to keep people from falling into a lone wolf mentality.

Tribal leadership is a framework for promoting high-performing, creative teams. It is based in the premise that every company operates at a certain level of cultural maturity.

Most companies, it turns out, aren't very adult. They are full of unruly children in suits, battling it out for scarce resources, creating a selfish, competitive culture. The alpha dogs in these organisations see the world in win-lose terms. ‘I'm great (and you're not)’ is the governing mindset.

These companies tend to be terrible at innovation. There's no higher purpose, limited creative autonomy, and little or no collaboration.

Such a culture will not fly in a startup. At The Merrier, we are battling dozens of wicked challenges every day, and we've simply no time for fighting among ourselves.  

We work hard to build a high-level collaborative culture. What we've created is far from perfect (and far from complete), but we aspire to operate at the highest levels of cultural maturity. We like workplace competition, but only when it’s a virtuous competition between teams. We like our teams to say: 'We’re great’ and mean it, because they’re proud of how they self-organise and how they execute for a higher purpose.

Tribal leadership helps us achieve what we want to achieve. The tribal leadership framework (as defined by Dave Logan, John King & Halee Fisher-Wright in their bestselling book Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization (2008)) posits that organisations that want to pull themselves out of the eternal war of workplace individualism must commit to a higher purpose and teach leaders to encourage people to self-organise into teams of three, or triads.

Two is a partnership but three is a tribe. A triad of three diversely-talented individuals can achieve an exponentially greater amount than two individuals working on the same task.

From a cultural point of view, the power of triads is to open people's eyes to what can be achieved through collaboration. Often, star players can be so convinced of their abilities that they resist collaborating with others, seeking to reestablish their personal greatness again and again. The strategy of putting these people in triads is to help them realise just how much more they could be achieving by working in concert with others.

This is the goal of the tribal leader: to bring the lone wolves of the organisation to an epiphany and transformative experience. Once lone wolves have experienced the power of triads, their independent achievements are reduced to scale. They become capable of thinking and acting at startup scale, dreaming big and taking tilts at impossible goals, which, with triadic power, they now have a shot at pulling off.

Are there people in your office that you work with particularly well? Take the lead and form a triad. See if there's some challenging task that the three of you are uniquely capable of completing.

Once you've done it, you can turn to the team and say: 'Wow, we’re great’. That's the power of tribal leadership.