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Book Review By Karen Shirer, PhD

Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization
Logan, D., King, J., & Fischer-Wright H. (2008). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing Co.

Military Family Service Providers (MFSP) meet the unique needs of service members, military spouses and their children in a world that is constantly changing. MFSP connect military families to critical services related to relocation, employment, behavioral health and many others. How do we ensure that the MFSPs and their organizations provide the most effective services?

Recently, my supervisor assigned a book to read for those she supervises, with the goal of discussing at our annual administrative retreat. My role as an associate dean for an extension center at the University of Minnesota involves executive leadership and administration for a center of 131 staff, faculty and educators. On a day-to-day basis, this means oversight of fiscal and human resources positioned to provide non-formal education across the state of Minnesota. It is challenging work, but energizes me on a daily basis.

The book, Tribal Leadership, changed how I think about establishing, developing and sun-setting workgroups in the center, as well as how I work to create the culture of the center. My bar is quite high on these kinds of books. I am not new to the leadership developmental literature having worked in higher education management and administrative positions since 1990, and participating in several intensive leadership programs. Nevertheless, this book gave me new insights about how to manage the organization and groups within them, and strategies for promoting their development toward effectiveness. Many MFSTs strive for this same goal and this book provides a roadmap for meeting it.

Basics of Tribal Leadership

The main thesis of the book focuses on the stages that groups and organizations of 20 to 150 people go through in the development of their culture, and that leaders can promote the development of a culture through moving groups through these stages. The stages look like this:

• Stage #1’s theme is “life sucks.” Only about 2% of groups fall into this category and often include criminal gangs and people who exhibit hostility and despair. Hopefully, the organization has very few people who fall into stage one.

• Stage #2’s theme is “my life sucks,” meaning that only one’s own life sucks and not life in general. Logan et al. write that the 25% of groups in this stage are passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Another way of describing this group is as apathetic and having a sense of victimhood.

• Stage #3’s theme is “I’m great (and you’re not),” making up the largest percentage of groups – 49%. People hoard knowledge as a way to acquire power; for example, they keep their contacts secret or gossip. One positive of this group is that they generally work very hard. But they are the first to tell others that they work harder than anyone else and could possibly not take on more work.

• Stage #4’s theme is “We’re great (and they’re not).” 22% of groups develop to this stage and possess a great of deal of tribal pride. The competitors or adversaries of this group are outside the organization whereas in stage #2 and #3, they are inside the organization. If the tribe is taken away from individuals, their sense of self incurs a loss of self-worth.

• Stage #5’s theme is “Life is great,” and makes up 2% of organizational groups. Group members talk of innovation and making history, and this often is the stage in which innovation occurs. Once the group achieves these successes, they often revert back to Stage 4 to regroup for another try at history making.

The books offers strategies and tactics for leaders to guide groups through these stages of development. Here are a few examples – the book has many more ideas:
• To begin, encourage people at stage #1 to get acquainted with those at stage #2. If one does not respond, leaders need to move them out of the organization.
• To move people to stage #2, mentor them to establish relationships with those at stage #3. Also, assign them short-term projects that don’t need nagging – the leader does not want to reinforce the “my life sucks” narrative of this stage.
• To move people to stage #3, encourage them to form 3-person groups and to work on projects that are larger than they could tackle on their own. Coach them to focus on bigger goals and to learn that working alone won’t bring them success. Find role models that talk about “we” rather than “I”.
• To work with groups at stage #4, recruit others to the group that share its values and encourage them to take advantage of opportunities that arise. Lead discussions with the group that focus on what is working well, what isn’t working well, and what can the group do about these issues.

Some key take-away points from the book include:
• We all work in tribes!
• An organization is a tribe AND a network of tribes.
• A key strategy for moving groups from one stage to another focuses on building relationships with positive mentors and roles models.
• A leader cannot change the organizational culture without upgrading the tribal culture.

If you are looking for an interesting approach to managing and leading your military-family-services workgroups or organizations, I strongly encourage reading and studying Tribal Leadership.


Karen Shirer is a member of OneOp Family Transitions Team and the Associate Dean with the University of Minnesota, Extension Center for Family Development. Karen is also the parent of two adult daughters, a grandmother, a spouse, and a cancer survivor.