Tribes – Book Review

Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us
Author: Seth Godin
Publisher: Piatkus
ISBN 13:  978-0749939755

Review by Chris Ducker.

It is an interesting fact that, as the term ‘tribe’ has become less popular amongst anthropologists and other social scientists (replaced by ‘ethnicity’ and ‘people group’), it has become increasingly popular elsewhere. Godin is an American marketer with a large and loyal following, who uses the concept of tribe, somewhat loosely, as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea” (p.1). Thus the fundamental concept of tribe shifts from kinship and inherited loyalties, towards groups with chosen allegiances based on shared interests.

Tribe is one of a dozen popular books Godin has authored. It reiterates ideas that first emerged on his various blogs and websites, and a laissez-faire editing means Godin’s raw material is rather unstructured and lacking progression of argument. The book’s central thesis is that social and, especially, technological changes (for which read ‘the Internet’) have profoundly reshaped how groups coalesce and how they operate: ‘tribes’ are now bigger, more numerous, and easier to start than ever before. Whilst it is an overstatement to say that “the Internet eliminates geography” (p.4) – we are still physical beings located in a particular spatial and cultural context – Godin is surely correct that the game has changed for groups, companies and organizations. We are differently connected.

Tribes dispenses with chapters or traditional book formatting in favour of 127 seemingly random reflections (one is reminded here of McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, with its 107 ‘mosaics’). These ‘Thoughts for the Day’ for marketers, leaders and activists at times take on a semi-religious tone, favourably labelling those challenging the status quo ‘heretics’ and those resisting change ‘fundamentalists’.

If this work worships anything it is, curiously, change. More so than success, profitability, or publicity, it reads as a paean to change, “the thrill of the new” (p.3). Such “change is made by asking forgiveness, later” (p.60) and seizing the initiative to lead. And the purpose of this leadership? “[T]o create change your tribe believes in” (p.19).

Good leadership balances conflicting priorities, chooses timing carefully, considers advantages and disadvantages whilst striving towards a clear vision. But to Godin that would be too hesitant, too cautious, too managerial. It’s not clear whether Godin hates anything more than managers, whom he considers ‘pessimists’ (p.104) with no courage – the antithesis of leaders who are ‘brave’ and full of hope.

What we encounter, ultimately, is a kind of restatement of the “great man” theory of leadership, only with many more great men, each a ‘tribal’ leader. But rather than some élites being born with outstanding leadership potential, anyone can choose to be a great, charismatic leader. The book gives little attention to desirable individual qualities and instead encourages the reader to take decisive action to start leading. The paradigm here is behaviouralist, rather than situationalist.

There is something curiously desperate about Godin’s urgings that “leading a tribe is the best life of all” (p.3) and that “it is worthless if you don’t decide to lead” (p.4). One of the concomitant trends of increased interconnectedness is the possibility of people – activists, businesspeople, hobbyists – being able to share leadership as never before. This reviewer has been present when new ‘tribes’ have been formed recently, and one key trend has been that of shared leadership: the tribe without the ‘big chief’, led by consensus, sometimes with a fluid interchange of responsibilities. Given this powerful contemporary development, it is both significant and strange that Godin clings to an obsession with a supreme leader, the charismatic communicator (not unlike Godin himself).

In some ways it seems unfair to apply academic scrutiny to a work whose raison d’être is motivational rather than abstract or analytical. The lack of evidence or in-depth case studies obviously diminishes its credibility, and there is neither a model to critique nor an engagement with other understandings of leadership and change management. For example, servant leadership has been defined as being a servant first and wanting to serve people by leading them (Greenleaf 1977), and we are left wondering what this and different types of leadership would look like for tribes, and under what circumstances each might be the most suitable. Godin’s unmistakably American perspective deviates very little from a power leadership model (Rinehart 1998, passim).

Godin’s final words, the Great Commission to his disciples (p.124), is “choose to lead… Go,” – a commandment which leaves unanswered very many questions as to what that leadership looks like apart from a strong preference for change and initiative-taking, and a strangely antiquated emphasis on the strong solitary leader.

Godin, Seth, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, London: Piatkus, 2008
Greenleaf, Robert K., Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1977
Marshall, Gordon (ed.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford: OUP, 1994
McLuhan, Marshall, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962
Northouse, Peter G., Leadership: Theory and Practice, London: Sage, 2007
Rinehart, Stacy, Upside Down – The Paradox of Servant Leadership, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1998

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Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us

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