2007-03-03

Reading Great Boss, Dead Boss (2007-02-23/03-03)

"'...[O]nce you understand tribal behavior, it seems to be just about the only workable model for successful social interaction.'"--Ray Immelman, Great Boss, Dead Boss

Book Review

Great Boss, Dead Boss is a book on leadership. In its pages it presents a theory of motivation as well as the management conclusions that this theory implies. It does all this within the context of a narrative. The plot illustrates the principles and the characters exemplify the leadership the book proposes.
Motivation Theory
The concept I had not encountered before I saw Great Boss, Dead Boss recommended is in Tribal Dimension 1: "Individuals are socially, emotionally, and psychologically defined by their tribal membership." (The second half of this long post contains a complete listing of Immelman's tribal attributes and dimensions.) This paradigm purports to explain motivation better than previous models. "[M]any MBA programs are less than optimal in this area," says Butch, who is the voice of the author in the narrative. Butch says, "Indeed, tribes appear to be the oldest organizational form and still exist in this modern day and age. I came to realize how deeply ingrained it was in human behavior through my experience with tribes in Africa."

Immelman applies this tribal model to what is essentially a simplification of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, that individuals seek security and value. Where Maslow proposed psychological, safety, and love/belonging needs, Immelman proposes individual security, "Individuals act to reinforce their security when under threat." Where Maslow proposed esteem, Immelman proposes individual value, "Individuals act to reinforce their self-worth when their security is not under threat." Other authors summarize these needs as "security and significance" or "relationship and impact."

Great Boss, Dead Boss extends the pursuit of security and value to the tribe as the determiner of individuals. Consequently the remaining two tribal dimensions mirror individual needs: "Tribes act to secure their self-preservation if their security is under threat," and "Tribes act to reinforce their self-worth when their security is not under threat." The replacement for the pyramid is a progression from low tribal security and low individual security to high tribal value and high individual value.
Management Practice
In addition to the tribal dimensions, Immelman's tribal attributes contain many good management ideas. A tribe must have a mission: "A strong tribe has a credible, just cause for its continued existence," and "A strong tribe has clear external measures of success." I infer from remarks in the book and in reviews that mission statements have been so commonly poorly developed that there is credibility in calling them something else ("just cause", "measures of success") and contrasting them with mission statements.

Other tribal attributes show the wisdom of sharpening the saw. "A strong tribe celebrates and cares for the skills, tools, and implements required for its prosperity." Greg, the protagonist of the narrative, even demonstrates a "Character Ethic," concluding, " A strong tribe has a leader dedicated to the tribe's success. "

Much of the book, however, could foster what Stephen Covey labels a "Personality Ethic." Greg sets about to apply tribal attributes as human relations techniques, saying, "I'm going to make our common enemy as tangible as possible," and "By introducing symbols, we actually create tribes." These are implementations of tribal attributes 1 and 2.

Greg cynically accepts individuals in a state of dependence: "I concluded that individuals prefer to subordinate their desires to that of the group, rather than take an individual stand." The methods of meeting esteem needs depend on others above or below: "A strong tribe has a revered figurehead," and "A strong tribe knows how it compares to the 'untouchables.'"
Book Narrative
The narrative itself conveys a pursuit of esteem through division between inside and outside, above and below. True to the principle that, "A strong tribe develops its own unique language," the protagonist uses abbreviations (IS, IV, TS, TV) that outsiders would not understand.

The main characters appear motivated by fame, glory, and respect. The story begins with displays of power, executives whose conversations look to me something like, "Go here, do this, do that, satisfy the board, see my secretary, I'm all upset about money." The book's alternative is a tribal guru, an African big-game hunter who mentors through terse answers, silences, and sudden ends to conversations. The book perhaps conveys to management readers that managing a successful company is somehow analogous in adventure to actually going to Africa.

Perhaps as a reflection of the patriarchy typical of tribes, no major character is female. The women (and children) take a supporting role, providing their men with time to pursue business objectives, and with food.

Personal Reaction
Frankly I don't fit the world in Great Boss, Dead Boss. I'm not a joiner. When I read, "A strong tribe expects unquestioning loyalty," I fear the True Believer. I feel belonging to small social connections rather than large social groups. I have responsibilities in my role as business owner, but I value this as one role in a balanced, effective life. For the future of my corporation, I'd rather see us develop a culture of interdependence, following on individual independence, based on character and competence. I'd like confidence based upon achievement independent of enemies, outsiders, and subordinates. Will being a tribal leader aid my company in achieving this aim?

Tribal Attributes and Dimensions

Tribal Attributes
Great Boss, Dead Boss lists twenty-three attributes of a very strong, highly motivated tribe and its leader:
  1. A strong tribe must have a common enemy.
  2. A strong tribe has clearly defined symbols.
  3. A strong tribe offers a superordinate identity to all sub-tribes.
  4. A strong tribe has a credible, just cause for its continued existence.
  5. A strong tribe has an accepted rite of passage.
  6. A strong tribe has clear external measures of success.
  7. A strong tribe understands and protects its source of power.
  8. A strong tribe knows how it compares to the "untouchables."
  9. The criteria for tribal membership are clear and credible.
  10. Tribes communicate in a non-traditional, subjective, and intuitive manner.
  11. A strong tribe develops its own unique language.
  12. Tribal roles are fundamentally different from accepted functional roles.
  13. Strong tribes record and celebrate significant events that reinforce their identity and value.
  14. A strong tribe has a clearly defined and well-known justice mechanism.
  15. A strong tribe has a clearly defined icon that embodies the tribal value.
  16. A strong tribe has a walled city--a place of refuge where things of value to the tribe are kept.
  17. A strong tribe possesses objects of value that embody the tribe's value.
  18. A strong tribe has a revered figurehead.
  19. A strong tribe celebrates and cares for the skills, tools, and implements required for its prosperity.
  20. A strong tribe expects unquestioning loyalty.
  21. A strong tribe has clearly defined roles, responsibilities, values, authority, power structure, and chain of command.
  22. A strong tribe has a leader dedicated to the tribe's success.
  23. Strong leaders have capable mentors whose psychological limits exceed their own.
Tribal Dimensions
The protagonist also examines five tribal dimensions:
  1. Individuals are socially, emotionally, and psychologically defined by their tribal membership.
  2. Individual Security (IS): Individuals act to reinforce their security when under threat.
  3. Individual Value (IV): Individuals act to reinforce their self-worth when their security is not under threat.
  4. Tribal Security (TS): Tribes act to secure their self-preservation if their security is under threat.
  5. Tribal Value (TV): Tribes act to reinforce their self-worth when their security is not under threat.
[Added anchor for subsequent post.]

2 comments:

Jim Benson said...

Excellent Review.

I've found that with any book about management or ones that provide constructs for personal interaction, there are bound to be holes.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs had simplifications and holes that drove Maslow crazy. He hated it when people literally interpreted the hierarchy as some catch-all for human interaction.

I find Great Boss, Dead Boss's construct a highly useful one, but certainly not an all-encompassing one. Individuality extends beyond the individual.

Oddly this both supports and refutes Immelman's construct. The tribe thrives on individuals and their tendency to not join. If people always joined anything they came into contact with, the act of joining would have no significance.

However, this means that often you will have external pressures on an individual that will change how they relate to a group. The groups in the book seemed to have a rapid transition from a low-trust to a high-trust environment.

Immelman was wise to put in external inducers, such as the power outtage, that gave people a push to see beyond their low-trust issues. But those plot contrivances generally don't happen every day.

People often come with their own levels of personal trust and their own baggage from years of being alive. The tribal model is a great organizational construct and a part of one's arsenal when dealing with individuals - but it shouldn't be the only part.

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