Five Stages of Tribal Innovation

In their book, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, call groups of people (from 20-150) tribes. Their basic argument is that success and innovation in any group/company/institution come from the tribes within that govern change and culture.

In our schools, we can see each of these tribes and the people inside of them as they move throughout five stages. Each stage represents not only “where” the person/group is, but also how it impacts the organization.

We often talk about pockets of innovation and how to move towards a culture of innovation. Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright would argue that moving towards a culture of innovation starts with the tribes inside our organizations and moving them up to Stage 5.

Ultimately, a culture is only as good as what you are collectively working towards.

When people from all facets of a tribe are on a mission together, not to BE GREAT, but instead to DO GREAT WORK, then we’ve reached the stage of a culture where life and work have a deep purpose.

Five Stages of Tribal Leadership via

The Five Tribal Stages

These stages are broken down and summarized by Shane Parrish in a recent article.

Stage One (2%): This is the “life sucks” camp. Logan and his co-authors liken this to street gangs and people that come to work with hostility and despair.

Stage Two (25%): In this stage, life doesn’t suck, only your life. In this stage, Logan et al. write, people are “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they’ve seen in all before and watched it all fail. A person at Stage Two will often try to protect his or her people from the intrusion of management.” This tribe is largely a collection of victims. This is what we see in Government Departments or The Office. Innovation is almost non-existent. Urgency is reserved for the coffee break. Accountability is rare.

Stage Three (49%): Moving along the continuum from “my life sucks” (Stage Two) we arrive at “I’m great (and you’re not)”. “Within the Stage Three culture,” Logan and his coauthors write, “knowledge is power, so people hoard it, from client contacts to gossip about the company.” At this Stage people need to win, especially if that means you lose. On an individual basis, these people are generally competent but form a collection of “lone warriors,” who want to help but experience near continuous disappointment when “others don’t have their ambition of skill.” These people, however, are willing to do the work. The most common complaints for people at this level is that they are too busy, they have no time, and they have crappy support.

Stage Four (22%): This is the progress from I’m great (Stage Three) to we’re great (Stage Four). The journey is not measured in equidistant miles between each stage and the gulf between Three and Four is much larger than from Two to Three. In this Stage if you take the tribe away, “the person’s sense of self suffers a loss.” Leaders in this Stage feel “pulled by the group.” Stage Four tribes have an outside adversary (whereas those operating in Stages Two and Three often have internal ones.) “The rule for Stage Four,” writes Logan et al., is “the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.” These tribes have little patience for the politics, personal agendas, and Office-style performance that dominate Stage Three. Like a transplant that doesn’t take, the group rejects these people.

Five Stages of Tribal Innovation

Stage Five (2%): “Stage Five’s T-shirt,” write Logan et al., “would read life is great.” The language here is one of potential and making history. “Teams at Stage Five have produced miraculous innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was at Stage Five. … This stage is pure leadership, vision, and inspiration.” These teams often revert back to Stage Four to regroup before attempting to summit again.


“Tribal leadership,” argues Logan and his co-authors, “focuses on two things: the words people use and the types of relationships they form.” Moving from Stage to Stage means using different leverage points.

What does this mean for your school?

Well, before we start pointing fingers at where people are in these stages, let’s look at ourselves. Look at how we act, how we treat people, what we say behind closed doors, what are mood is at work (and at home), and what times at work we have felt fulfilled (if ever).

After taking some time for self-reflection, the goal is to rally the tribe to move up the stages.

This is not easy.

No one likes being told they need to change, and no one likes being told that their attitude is holding their team back.

Yet, when we let this type of Stage 1 and Stage 2 personalities drive the culture, we end up with an organization that no one wants to work for, that does not move forward, and typically plays the blame game in every critical situation and opportunity.

Instead, the authors give specific leverage points for how to move people from stage to stage. Here again, summarized by Farnam Street:

For a person at Stage One:

  • Go where the action is.
  • Start hanging around people at Stage Two.
  • “Cut ties with people who share the “life sucks” language.

The success indicators here are:

  • A move away from “life sucks” language to “my life sucks.”
  • Passive apathy replaces despairing hostility.
  • Cuts ties with people at Stage One.

For a person at Stage Two:

  • Start building one-on-one relationships especially with people at Stage Three.
  • “In one-on-one sessions, show her how her work makes an impact.”
  • Assign short duration projects that require little nagging (as that might reinforce the “my life sucks” language that dominates this Stage.)

The success indicators here are:

  • A move away from “my life sucks” to “I’m great.”
  • Name-dropping and bragging.
  • Lone warrior fighting the good fight.

For a person at Stage Three:

  • Encourage them to form three person relationships (we expand on this in our learning community).
  • Encourage them to work on projects bigger than something they could tackle by themselves.
  • The way they’ve worked to achieve the success they’ve had up to this point won’t get them where they need to go. Focus on bigger goals and inviting people in to help them.
  • Point to role models who use the “we” language and the success they’ve achieved.

The success indicators here are:

  • They will use “we” instead of “I.”
  • Their network expands from a few dozen to several hundred.
  • Working less but getting more done.

For a Person at Stage Four:

  • “Stabilize by ensuring (relationships) are based on values, advantages, and opportunity.”
  • Encourage opportunistic behaviour to accomplish greatness.
  • Recruiting others to the tribe who share values.
  • “Perform regular oil changes with the team. In this process, she should lead a discussion about (1) what is working well, (2) what is not working well, and (3) what the team can do to make things that are not working well, work.”

Success indicators here are:

  • A switch from “we’re great” to “life is great”
  • Networks include a “stunning amount of diversity.”
  • Time allocations are based on values and noble missions.
  • Exemplar of the tribes values.

Is it possible for our school to live in Stage 5?

Short answer: Of course it is possible.

Yet, even the great teams and tribes tend to go back to Stage 4 in order to regroup before taking on a new mission to get to Stage 5.

Part of the reason a culture of innovation is so critical in our schools today is that working towards developing new ideas that work brings us back to Stage 5.

Innovation doesn’t have a finish line.

Neither does culture.

Both are organic, fluid, and often unpredictable. Tribes drive the move from pockets to a full culture in ways that one leader cannot.

I’m excited about moving towards to Stage 5 in my work in my district, but I have to be constantly assessing what role I’m playing in the tribes that are working from Stage 2 to 3 and to Stage 3 to 4.

What am I allowing for as a leader?

What am I making time for as a leader?

What am I supporting as a leader?

What am I praising, looking for, and assessing as a leader?

The answers to these questions fundamentally impact our move towards a culture of innovation and help move tribes from one stage to another by laying the groundwork for doing work that matters.

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Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • Michele Cooper says:

    This was powerful. My school is trying to create a new culture and trying hard to innovate. I read this article and felt it described the issues with staff exactly. I’m going to share it ASAP in the hope of helping others see what’s happening. Thank you.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hey Michele would love for you to circle back around to this comment section to share out what the feedback is, I’m doing the same thing and I’m interested in potential for backlash. No one wants to be faced with the fact that they may be Stage 1 or 2. It’s either time to take ownership and move towards stage 3, or move on to another job/role.

  • Casey Korder says:

    Fascinating information here. Honestly, trying to help move our school forward in order to help all our learners be successful. It isn’t easy to change a schools climate and culture; however this post really helped put things into perspective. Thanks

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Yes, Casey I think many of us are on the same journey. It is definitely not easy to change climate and culture, but knowing where we are and seeing a path forward is a great start!

      • Victoria Kelly says:

        I am so excited to see ACTIONABLE steps for each stage of the metamorphosis from an isolated educator who may feel un-empowered to affect positive change to one that feels that they are living the change and weathering the bumps in that journey! I plan on sharing this with my teachers, as it gives them solid reference points for navigating positive (and often challenging) change in themselves and in their learning environments. Thank you!

  • I have not read your book, but I think it would be interesting to develop a survey that members of the culture could take to self-assess what stage they are currently in and so the administrator could have a big picture view of the organization as a whole.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Good point Tara. I wonder if it could work like a strength-finders assessment. Only issue is folks being honest. Not many people want to say they are in Stage 1 or 2 especially in front of their peers. What do you think?

  • Traci Bonde says:

    Looks a lot like Senge’s model from “The Fifth Discipline.” I am seeing tribes as a new “hot term” in EDU.

  • […] Source: The Five Stages of Tribal Innovation – A.J. JULIANI […]

  • Bill Funk says:

    Thank you, A.J.! I also found this a powerful and useful perspective on “Tribes” of many sizes (District, school, department, classroom). Assuming we can fairly accurately identify a classroom as being at a particular level, we may also notice a few outliers: those individuals in a level or two above or below the tribe norm. My questions:

    a. Is it better (or even useful) to have these outliers rejoin their tribe before attempting to elevate that tribe?
    b. What resources do you use to address these outliers (especially those below the tribe norm level)?

  • A. Miller says:

    My school is currently in a transition phase and working to create a culture of innovation at our redesigned global studies school. I am confident in saying that as a teaching staff, we operate on a Stage Four level. We are an incredibly diverse team, recent survey data shows that teachers in our school value and trust one another, and we generally believe that, “we’re pretty great” – all indicators of Stage Four operation. The unfortunate truth is that at this point our tribal adversary tends to be our school’s administration due to a not-so-smooth transition of leadership and rough subsequent months. The vast majority of individual teachers are committed to our school, our students, and operating harmoniously in order to achieve large-scale success. Can anyone offer some specific tips to ease our transition into living in Stage 5?
    Thank you!

  • Fatima Ali says:

    “When people from all facets of a tribe are on a mission together, not to BE GREAT, but instead to DO GREAT WORK, then we’ve reached the stage of a culture where life and work have a deep purpose.” (AJ Juliani, 2017, Feb. 14 The Five Stages of Tribal Innovation. Retrieved from

    This statement really captures the essence of genuine leadership. I feel that individuals progress from tribes to teams as they move from stage 1 to stage 5. At the same time, their motivation evolves from working for themselves to working for the cause. Thus, they don’t want to “be great” but “do great work.”

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