Phil Jackson and Tribal Leadership

This was an amazing week for the Tribal Leadership tribe. On Saturday, one of my Executive MBA students emailed a New York Times article about Phil Jackson’s new book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success. The Times said: “[Phil Jackson] assesses his teams based on a weirdly schematic model borrowed from a book called ‘Tribal Leadership.’ During the 2008-9 season,’ he writes, ‘the Lakers needed to shift from a Stage 3 team to a Stage 4 in order to win.’”

Wow!  And we had to wait until Wednesday for the book to launch.

When I landed in LA on Tuesday after a speech at the World Bank and a hopelessly delayed flight from Washington, DC, it was after midnight on the east coast and Eleven Rings was live as an e-book. I downloaded it immediately and sat stunned as I read the first chapter, which gave one of the best (and longest) summaries of Tribal Leadership we have ever seen. The thread continued as Jackson told his story of the Chicago Bulls, and then the L.A. Lakers. It became clear, as I sat there reading on my iPad, that moving teams from Tribal Leadership stage 3 to 4 to 5 is a cornerstone of the “Zen master’s” coaching philosophy.

To say we are fans of Phil Jackson is an understatement. Years ago, John King and I were having lunch at an L.A. restaurant, and Jackson was at another table. On our way out, John led us both to their table, and he shook hands with the basketball great, adding: “Thank you for what you’ve done for Los Angeles.” 

We can now add, thank you, Mr. Jackson, for what you’ve done for the Tribal Leadership community.

We probably haven’t caught all the references to Tribal Leadership in Eleven Rings, but what follows are some of the best.

In their groundbreaking book, Tribal Leadership, management consultants Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright lay out the five stages of tribal development, which they formulated after conducting extensive research on small to midsize organizations. Al­though basketball teams are not officially tribes, they share many of the same characteristics and develop along much the same lines:

STAGE 1 — shared by most street gangs and characterized by despair, hostility, and the collective belief that “life sucks.”

STAGE 2 — filled primarily with apathetic people who perceive themselves as victims and who are passively antagonistic, with the mind-set that “my life sucks.” Think The Office on TV or the Dilbert comic strip.

STAGE 3 — focused primarily on individual achievement and driven by the motto “I’m great (and you’re not).” According to the authors, people in organizations at this stage “have to win, and for them winning is personal. They’ll outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. The mood that results is a collection of “lone warriors.”

STAGE 4 — dedicated to tribal pride and the overriding conviction that “we’re great (and they’re not).” This kind of team requires a strong adversary, and the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.

STAGE 5 — a rare stage characterized by a sense of innocent wonder and the strong belief that “life is great.” (See Bulls, Chicago, 1995–98.)

All things being equal, contend Logan and his colleagues, a stage 5 culture will outperform a stage 4 culture, which will outperform a 3, and so on. In addition, the rules change when you move from one culture to another. That’s why the so-called universal principles that appear in most leadership textbooks rarely hold up. In order to shift a culture from one stage to the next, you need to find the levers that are appropriate for that particular stage in the group’s development.

During the 2008–09 season the Lakers needed to shift from a stage 3 team to a stage 4 in order to win. The key was getting a criti­cal mass of players to buy into a more selfless approach to the game. I didn’t worry so much about Kobe, even though he could go on a shooting spree at any second if he felt frustrated. Still, by this point in his career I knew he understood the folly of trying to score every time he got his hands on the ball. Nor was I concerned about Fish or Pau Gasol, who were naturally inclined to be team players. What concerned me most were some of the younger players eager to make a name for themselves with the ESPN SportsCenter crowd.

But to my surprise, early in the season I noticed that even some of the most immature players on the team were focused and single minded. “We were on a serious mission, and there wasn’t going to be any letup,” says forward Luke Walton. “By the time we got to the fi­nals, losing just wasn’t going to be an option.”

Pages 7-9


As I mentioned in the first chapter, management experts Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright describe the five stages of tribal developing in their book, Tribal Leadership. My goal in my first year as head coach was to transform the Bulls from a stage 3 team of lone warriors to their own individual success (“I’m great and you’re not) to a stage 4 team in which the dedication to the We overtakes the emphases on the Me (“We’re great and you’re not).

…To do that, I couldn’t just rely on one of two innovative motivational techniques.  I had to devise a multifaceted program that included the triangle offense…

Page 81


My reaction was more subdued. Yes it was a difficult loss, one of the worst games I’ve ever had to coach. But once the noise died down, I noticed that the pain of humiliating defeat had galvanized the team in a way I’d never seen before The Bulls were beginning to morph into a tribe.

Page 89


After than wrenching loss to Detroit in the playoffs, we still had a long way to go before we reached that ideal. But we were definitely moving in the right direction. The players were beginning to embrace the system and show signs of becoming a more selfless, stage 4 team.  

Page 90


After the game, the sports pundits began comparing the Bulls with the giants of the past. With this victory, we became only the third team in history—along with the Minneapolis Lakers and the Boston Celtics—to win three championships in a row. It was flattering to be included in the same sentence with these hallowed teams. But what they missed was the real story: the inner journey the players had gone through to transform the Bulls from a stage 3 (“I’m great, you’re not) team into a stage 4 (“We’re great, they’re not”) team.

Page 131


In truth, it was a confluence of forces that came together in the fall of 1995 to transform the Bulls into a new breed of championship team. From a tribal-leadership perspective, the Bulls were moving being a stage 4 team to a stage 5. The first series of championships transformed the Bulls from an “I’m great, you’re not” team to a “We’re great, they’re not” team. But for the second series, the team adopted a broader “Life is great” point of view. By midseason it became clear to me that it wasn’t competition per se that was driving the team; it was simply the joy of the game itself. This dance was ours, and the team could only compete against ourselves.

Page 141


As we gathered at the University of Santa Barbara from training camp, I saw the Lakers as a stage 3 team with a decidedly “I’m great, you’re not” point of view.

Page 207


What gave me the most pleasure, though, was watching this group of talented but undisciplined players shape themselves into a force to be reckoned with. They still had a lot to learn, but I was impressed by how quickly they had shifted from a me-oriented stage 3 team to a we-focused stage 4.

Pages 229-230


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