The Five Stages of 3-Peat Champions

One of the most interesting themes of Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson was his application of the 5 stages of tribal leadership from Tribal Leadership, a book by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright.

There are five stages of tribal leadership. Here’s how Jackson describes each stage:

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.” (Bulls, 1995-1998)

Over the course of the book, Jackson highlighted the different transitions his Bulls and Lakers teams went through as they ascended the stages of tribal leadership.

Most notably, he believed that the 1995-98 Bulls teams had become a stage 5 team. Here are Jackson’s words:

“I’m often asked to reveal the secret of the 1995-96 Bulls, which some consider the greatest basketball team ever assembled…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 from 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 only team that could compete against us was ourselves.”

Stage 5 teams like the 95-98 Bulls are extremely rare. Jackson points out that the Lakers teams he led–who had a 3-peat of their own–never got past stage 4 as a group. Egos got in the way and blocked the team from becoming all that it could. It’s extremely difficult to become a stage 5 team. Jackson alludes to this when he talks of Kobe’s transformation as a leader:

“The most gratifying thing of all was watching Kobe transform from a selfish, demanding player into a leader that his teammates wanted to follow. To get there, Kobe had to learn to give in order to get back in return. Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of letting go.

The journey towards becoming a stage 5 tribe reminds me of Jim Collins’ concept of a “Level 5 leader” from Good to Great.

I think it’s fair to say that teams need level 5 leaders before they can become a stage 5 tribe. The two work in harmony.

I’ll end with this: if the team you’re on isn’t where you want it to be, checking in with where you are on the hierarchy is a great place to start.

This first appeared in the June 1, 2020 Monday Morning Edge newsletter.