Stage Four? Stage Four Anyone?

Several years ago, I had dinner with a David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. His picture is on the cover of his book, and his company is named after him, the David Allen Company. He’s a spiritual guy, a Stage Four leader—clearly not interested in the ego boost building a business empire. “Why did you do that?” I asked, “why make it all about you?” 

“Simple—the market demands it,” was his answer. 

He seemed at ease with the decision in a way I would not have been. Tribal Leadership was nearing the final phase, and John’s and my hope (we hadn’t yet joined forced with Halee) was that it would be a Stage Four book presented in a Stage Four manner—written from a tribe, about tribes. (Stage Three is the zone of personal accomplishment, where people say, “I’m great and you’re not.” It’s where people spar, each kicking the others down and self-promote. It’s like the wild, wild west. The biggest problem with American business is that this zone runs business, with most MBAs using Donald Trump-style management to get ahead at the expense of others. Stage Four is based on shared values, where people express a “we’re great” adage, and network together in tight social structures.) 

I think a lot about that dinner now that Tribal’s out. The media wants us to do the Stage Three thing, often doesn’t know what to do with us when we don’t pretend we’re on a reality TV show. One radio host asked me, “so which leading person, you know, that we’ve heard of, is just full of crap?” The real answer is: no one. We’re all trying to do the same thing, just using different words and different approaches. 

Our publisher paused when we wanted to add Halee as an author, because books are extensions of individuals, not teams. (To their credit, they eventually embraced the idea.) 

An interviewer asked Halee what five companies she could name that were screwed up, what exactly she did to save each one, and how each is doing today. Anyone who would answer that question has no business writing a book on leadership. (To do so would be to say—look at me—I’m the best consultant you’ve ever seen.) Halee didn’t answer it, and the interview never ran. 

Last week, I did a live segment on Fox Business. Stuart Varney, the host, did his best to win an Emmy for “biggest jackass on television” award. He spent most of the five minutes making fun of the “make nice, nice” approach in the book. (Note to future interviewers: at least know what the book is about.) At one point, he asked me what I did before writing the book. He latched onto the USC connection and said, in a sarcastic tone, “oh, an academic!” This went on until I felt the hairs on the back of my neck (sign a Stage Three outburst is forming in your brain), and said: “you want the down side of a system in which you crawl your way to the top, I got two words for: Elliot Spitzer.” The woman next to him in the studio said “woo!”, implying that I’d won that point. And the game was on. At the end of the interview, he repeated his objection to the book and I said: “You’re totally wrong, Stuart, but I appreciate your point of view.” He laughed in a way that seemed to say I’d surprised him by not being a complete idiot. 

What was that? It had nothing to do with making people leaders. It was about ratings, pure and simple. It was the CNBC version of Survivor. I knew I’d fallen to Stage Three. It was fun, but I felt I needed a shower to wash away the bits of ego juice I’d sweated out. 

Stage Three is fun to watch. Two people, both think they’re better, self-promoting and trying to kick the other in their…credibility. We (the audience) take sides. We say “ouch!” and “she won that point!” as we sit back and eat our popcorn. 

But in the industry of writing leadership books? Stage Three created sub-prime, when charlatan sales reps sold middle America mortgages they couldn’t afford, while executives looked the other way and reaped short-term profits that morphed into long-term bankruptcies. The market cap of Wall Street would double—and that’s conservative—if Stage Four became the center of gravity of U.S. corporations. 

We’re supposed to get that message out while throwing insults, saying we did it, and look at me—I’m the smartest author you’ve ever seen? 

Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” We can’t solve the problem of Stage Three by staying in Stage Three. 

Maybe my friend David Allen is right—maybe it’s better to give the market what it wants and wait for evolution to run its course. Until we get to that point, we’re going to keep hammering away at the message of Tribal Leadership—from our tribe to yours.

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