Tribal Leadership in Education

Faculty members make up a tribe.  Students make up a tribe.  It may be that the students and faculty in a course make up a tribe.  If you want to know how to make a tribe really work, then it is imperative that you read David Logan, John King, and Hallee Fischer-Wright’s Tribal Leadership.  In brief, the authors say this:

There are five types of tribes that identify themselves by the way they talk about their place in the world, which in turn indicates the way they interact with their world. According to Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright, these tribes are in fact people who live in a worldview that can be upgraded one step at a time toward the goal of a self-actualized community.  They categorize the tribal stages as follows:

  1. Stage 1 tribes believe and say things like “Life sucks.”  People in such tribes are often raging individuals who don’t think resorting to violence to get what they want is a problem.
  2. Stage 2 tribes believe that the world is made up of the “haves” and the “have-nots.”  Members of stage 2 tribes believe that they are among the have-nots and that their life “sucks” but they see all sorts of people around them whose lives don’t.  If you ask them why their life sucks, they claim to be victims of the oppression impressed upon them by the “haves.”
  3. Stage 3 tribes believe and say things like “I’m Great! (and you’re not).”  Members of stage 3 tribes are individuals on the make.  They are working hard to demonstrate to themselves and others that they are competent, in fact they want to be the most competent person in their line of work.  It seems amazing that such folks can live in proximity to one another, but stage 3 tribal members are willing to get along with other stage 3 folks as long as the other has a different (even if subtle) area of expertise.
  4. Stage 4 tribes are made of people who build teams that claim “We are Great! (and they are not).”  Stage 4 tribal members have networks of communication that rely on groups of 3 (triads).  Groups that work in this state are about 30% more productive than Stage 3 tribes.
  5. Stage 5 tribes, the rare few, live in a magical world in which members claim that “Life is Great!” and don’t see others groups as competitors.  They are out to change the world as we know it for the better.

How does this apply to education.  First, listen to your students.  What do they say?  I taught a group of students who had failed their college orientation class (go figure!).  I was stunned by the way they talked about themselves in context of the academic universe.  For the most part they existed in a Stage 2 tribe.  They weren’t succeeding, but it wasn’t their fault…that prof, that staff member, that….  A few of them were willing to make the cultural shift to Stage 3, but most were not…they were on their way out the door.  The only thing holding them to the university was their connection to the athletic program.  Maybe they were a Stage 3 athelete…I don’t know.

Many of my students are at Stage 3.  They are competent students.  They know how to learn, at least learn enough to get the grade they want without too much stress.  Set the bar, show it to them, and they’ll figure out how to jump over it.  Some of them are even highly competitive.  They get their self-esteem from being able to say, “I’m great,” and, while looking around the room, muttering under their breath, “(and your not).”  Faculty, and I’ve been one of them, figure out that some students can be highly motivated by messing with their “I’m great” self-image.  Grade them down a little and they get stressed and work harder.  Notice here the subtle claim by the faculty member…”I’m great, dear student, and, well, your not.”  According the Logan, King and Fischer-Wright, Stage 3 tribal members exist in a symbiotic relationship with Stage 2 tribal members.  In traditional education, the Sage-on-Stage needs those adoring and over-awed students who fawn after him or her…and the teacher’s pet needs the dumb kids.

According to the authors of Tribal Leadership, a few pockets in academia are conducive to Stage 4 tribal development, particularly scientific research groups.  For them, the problems are too big for any one person to solve them, so a team of three or more is necessary to get the job done.  This becomes the basis for the potential development of Stage 4 tribes.  Of course, low on the totem pole grad students in a research group answer to Stage 3 senior grad students, who are themselves caught in between 3 and 4 as they relate to the god-like PI.

Stage 5…Life is Great. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a thing in education…maybe Jesus on the cross…maybe Paul’s “to live is Christ to die is gain”… I don’t know.  But those aren’t really examples from education, are they?

The goal of 21st century skills proponents, though they might not know it, is to help students achieve Stage 4 tribal status.  According to Tribal Leadership, that’s not going to be possible until those students not only pass through, but own and discover the inadequacy of stages 2 and 3 tribes. Finding ways to get students from Stage 2 to Stage 3 is imperative to getting them to Stage 4. Is that a too linear way of thinking?  I don’t know.

I think it might be interesting to explore how upgrading tribal cultures among both faculty and students might be the real goal of 21st century education.

More on this later….

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