Tribal Leadership: Opening the Door to Success


Tribal leadership, people holding hands with a leader in the middle

What is it that makes some organisations flourish, while others are less effective? And what does that mean for DevRel teams? The book Tribal Leadership argues that ’tribe culture’ is the deciding factor.

Each tribe brings together people who share a similar outlook on life. And those organisations that apply the idea of tribal culture to the development of their teams will improve effectiveness, engagement, job satisfaction, and expectations of successes in the future.

What is tribe culture?

Humans have been tribal since the dawn of time. Like any group of people, tribes tend to have shared ways of thinking, interacting, and working. 

According to the book’s authors, tribes aren’t a relic of the past. Instead, every organisation is made up of modern day tribes who wield enormous collective power, even if they’re not always aware of it. Understanding that power, and the different types of tribe, is crucial for leaders. That’s because the tribal cultures that make up an organisation have a strong influence on its effectiveness. 

Tribes are about how we speak and act

The first step to understanding and applying tribal leadership is to recognise what sets one group apart from another.

Typically, tribe members have the following in common, and these elements are used to identify different groups:

  • Language
  • Behaviour: actions and types of relationships forged within the group.

Next, there are the tribal leaders, who work to grow themselves and their tribes. Tribal leadership is a mutually beneficial relationship between a tribe’s leaders and its members. A true tribal leader has vision, is aware of traditional ways of working, and shares and develops leadership. The leader serves and protects the tribal community, develops trust, and shows respect for all members of the tribe.

A tribal leader is rewarded with loyalty, hard work, innovation and collaboration from their team. The tribe also achieves work of higher quality in less time, as the leader inspires the group to work effectively. One of the advantages of tribal leadership is that it permits managers to understand and apply leadership within their organisations.

The five stages of tribal relationships

Drawing on a ten year field study of 24,000 people in two dozen organisations worldwide, the book’s authors theorised that there are five tribal stages that define how people work and behave. 

The authors classify the tribe cultures into levels, beginning at the bottom and slowly working towards what is regarded as ‘the pinnacle of work culture’. Each has its unique language, relationship makeup and typical behaviour. The higher the stage, the better the group performance – Stage Five being the goal. It is only possible to advance through the stages one by one. At each stage the tribe learns, develops and ‘upgrades’.

A tribe must reach Stage Four, as it is not possible to reach Stage Five without having first experienced the previous stage. Tribal leaders coach their teams through all stages, moving towards the teamwork of Stages Four and Five. The authors of the book claim that by implementing these leadership stages well, the effectiveness of an organisation is improved. The happiness of the workforce increases. Members work together and are of a similar mindset and goal.

What do these five stages mean?

Stage 1: “Life Sucks”

People in this stage are at ‘rock bottom’ or in extreme circumstances. They see the world as a cruel, unfair place. Stage One people are alienated, harbouring a sense of bitterness towards society. People in this stage do whatever necessary to survive. They often cut all relationships with other functional tribes and move towards dysfunctional groups. 

Stage 2: “My Life Sucks”

‘I don’t fit in’ is the vibe of this stage. However, people in Stage Two do see that life can be different as they see that others have good things in life that they lack. This can lead to feelings of anger and frustration. They tend to blame others for their reality. However, the book argues that there is hope for members of this tribe. This is despite the fact they believe they are not valued for all they do at work, and they often blame the boss for everything. According to the book, many of the best organisations worldwide are rife with workers in this stage.

The authors of the book believe that most of the world’s workforce is in Stage Two or Three. People are often in different stages, depending on the context of what they are doing and the people around them. It is possible to be in one stage, but then spend time with many people on a lower stage. Subsequently, a person could move down to that lower stage for a while, before rising back up again.

Stage 3: “I’m Great (and You’re Not)”

Stage Three people really believe that they are great. They also consider those around them to be nowhere near as capable or committed. These people give 100%. They are dedicated, full of energy and fully engaged. In short, they excel at their job. That said, for them, it is all about their own wins. They are continually frustrated by what they perceive to be a lack of time or support. Typical language used by this group is often “I” and “me”. 

The book goes on to describe how people can limit themselves through Stage Three behaviours. Leaders control information and decisions. At first glance, it appears that the tribe is working well, with most members priding themselves on their place in the group. However, lots of the same people continue to complain that they do all of the work. This causes the gradual formation of one-on-one relationships between two people, with virtually no communication outside of it.

Power and knowledge are currencies in this stage and are limited. If a team member shares their knowledge with another, they consider themselves less valuable for it. The other team member grows in knowledge, making the first team member less important. Stage Three behaviour tends to be seen in areas with lots of clever, successful people. 


Before entering Stage Four, every Stage Three leader has a ‘Tribal Leadership Epiphany’, which completely changes their language and behaviours. This epiphany consequently influences the tribe, although they must first share the epiphany with the team before this happens. When leaders have epiphanies, they are extremely empowering. These epiphanies spark a sense of urgency in the person to start something new or do things differently. 

Examples of an epiphany can include thoughts such as: 

  • Nothing that matters is personal.
  • I now see I was a manipulator, not a leader.
  • I see myself through others’ eyes, and I don’t like what I see.

Once a leader advances to the next stage, they will work to bring their tribe with them on their journey of enlightenment. The solution is to change the tribe’s attitude one person at a time. This is done by encouraging them to use the increasingly positive language of the next stage.

Each member of the tribe must have their own epiphany and arrive at the next stage themselves. A leader can offer words of encouragement, and provide examples of how each team member can progress to the next stage of development. However, it is an individual journey.

Stage 4: “We’re Great”

Teams with shared values and a common purpose are what Stage Four is all about. They have already tasted personal success in Stage Three, and are now ready for genuine partnerships with others. Stage Four people take great pride in their tribe as a whole and believe in the ‘greatness’ of that group.

Information is shared freely, any decisions are made according to values and partnerships within the group, and are formed with a desired outcome in sight. Stage Four is about the exchange of power between team members. This is the stage that the authors of the book encourage the reader to reach. 

Stage Four is a launchpad for Stage Five. In order to progress to the fifth stage, you must attain three elements of Stage Four:

  • Strengthen teams through core values and a noble cause. This means identifying team values and then making tribal behaviours of these values. This also involves bringing the tribe together in one noble cause
  • Build networks through three-party relationships
  • Develop a good tribal strategy

Once all of these elements are in place, the tribes will experience a defining moment when they make the leap from Stage Four to Stage Five. This is a moment when everything suddenly comes together and any self-imposed limits are broken down. 

Stage 5: “Life is Great”

Stage Five is the apex of team development and very difficult, however not impossible, to attain. It is a short-lived experience, often fleeting. A team will reach the fifth stage in a moment of elation or euphoria brought about by an event or circumstance. However, they will then move back down to Stage Four again afterwards.

This can happen when tribes beat their rivals, hold a successful conference or win market share, thus expanding their impact on the world. All language is extremely positive and focuses on infinite potential, how to help humanity and make history.

People in Stage Five do not look for attention, despite the fact that they are often regarded as saviours or heroes. They focus on values that go beyond those of an individual or group. An example of the people in this group would be those in a social justice movement. Stage Five tribes collaborate with any other values-driven tribes, not necessarily tribes that share their own values.

The authors of the book consider it possible to stabilise at Stage Four and repeatedly jump to Stage Five on occasion. Those few organisations that are so innovative that they have created history-making projects would be examples of the type of groups that reach Stage Five.

Stages in a DevRel Context

Stage Three

On top of existing technical skills, working in the DevRel field involves the core skills of sharing information, helping others, communicating, empathising, collaborating and listening. These are typical examples of the behaviour of people in Stages Three and Four.

Examples of DevRel people in Stage Three would be speakers at conferences, in a space where all are encouraged to have a voice. Speakers share their knowledge and experiences to show others the way to be successful in their field too, and at the same time showcase their level of expertise in adjacent technical fields.

Stage Four

DevRel work values reflected in Stage Four include trusting people in your team, sharing information, sharing the stage and bringing people together to work on projects, as well as connecting people to apps, vendors, solutions and other communities. It is all about the team and not the individual.

Work in DevRel involves making developers successful through the use of software or solutions offered, and so an emphasis on the greatness of the team as a whole and its success is crucial. This is also one of the main characteristics of Stage Four. DevRel team members often look beyond teams and companies to tech communities, where DevRel is also heavily involved, and so this reinforces the Stage Four idea of connecting to other communities and reaching out to achieve the goal of the team.

Tribal Leadership can be applied to DevRel in the methods used to help team or community members in their personal development journey. Team players can be set up for success through strategic tasks or incentives, which not only benefit the person in question, but the group in general. If one individual gains knowledge or experience from a task, this is shared with the rest of the team, creating a group focused on the main goal, which means the organisation also wins.

The concept of focused conversations within a group, avoiding judgement wherever possible, and encouraging a variety of ideas, are all aspects of the book that can be put into practice in DevRel with relative ease, as the field already tends to focus on this. The idea of group values is at the core of any team or community in Stage Four.

Stage Five

Stage Five can be reached in DevRel on occasions when the aim is about nothing more than communication and empowerment. For example, Global Diversity Call For Proposals Day brought together experts from all over the world to support underrepresented people in tech to realise their aspirations to become public speakers. This was an event which set aside competition and people working in DevRel felt that they were truly doing something great for the whole tech industry.

Open source work is another example of Stage Five behaviour in DevRel. This kind of work is about lifting everyone and sharing information for the good of the community.


The book Tribal Leadership argues that its approach is the key to success for any organisation. For leaders, the framework of tribes can help put individual behaviours into context and help them to build relationships that will enable those people to progress through the book’s five stages. The idea is that a tribal culture that reaches those higher stages is more efficient, innovative, and collaborative.

The tribal leader is responsible for moving the tribe through the stages by encouraging certain behaviours, a change of language, and the creation of new relationships. Ultimately, if a group has a strong tribal leader, tribe members will move to the next stage. They will eventually reach the ideal Stage Four culture or even the euphoric Stage Five, where innovation thrives and benefits society, even changing the world in some way.

For people working in DevRel, there are parallels between the five stages and the reality of our developer communities and teams. Programming language communities, for example, are somewhat tribal and we probably all have our own take on which of them are at Stage Three (“I’m great and you’re not”). More broadly, though, the book’s description of tribes, how that can inform leadership, and how to progress through the tribal stages, is really a lesson on empathy in leadership. And that is core to what developer relations is all about.

Want to know more about Tribal Leadership and DevRel? Check out our recent DevRel Book Club episode.


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