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What I learned about leadership from Seth Godin’s ‘Tribes’.

TribesSeth Godin’s book Tribes reads like a coherent narrative version of his blog. It’s organized into nice, easily digestible sections. The whole thing is only 131 pages long. It’s nothing if not concise. I managed to read it comfortably in one session and I’d highly recommend you do the same!

Whilst I was reading it I was lulled into a sense of it seeming a bit obvious. It was only on reflection I realised how Godin’s clever use of storytelling and reinforcement had left me feeling empowered to make a difference in the world.

Here’s a potted version of what I took away from Tribes. I’ve collated more quotations from the book on my wiki. :-)

1. Anyone can be a leader

If there’s one thing that Godin wants you to take away from Tribes it’s that leadership is a choice and that although it won’t be easy, in the end it’s as difficult as you make it. On the second-to-last page of the book he has this to say:

You can choose to lead, or not. You can choose to have faith, or not. You can choose to contribute to the tribe, or not.
Are there thousands of reasons why you, of all people, aren’t the right one to lead? Why you don’t have the resources or the authority or the genes or the momentum to lead? Probably. So what? You still get to make the choice.
Once you choose to lead, you’ll be under huge pressure to reconsider you choice, to compromise, to dumb it down, or to give it up. Of course you will. That’s the world’s job: to get you to be quiet and follow. The status quo is the status quo for a reason.
But once you choose to lead, you’ll also disover that it’s not so difficult. That the options available to you seem really clear, and that yes, in fact, you can get from here to there.
Go.

Godin’s reasoning is that if you’re passionate about an issue or want to change something enough, then gaining credit for that change isn’t important:

If it’s about your mission, about spreading the faith, about seeing something happen, not only do you not care about credit, you actually want other people to take credit.

There’s no record of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi whining about credit. Credit isn’t the point. Change is. (p.115)

Leaders need followers and it’s those followers that Godin calls your ‘Tribe’. There are, apparently (and intuitively, to be honest), only two things that you need to turn a group of people into a tribe (p.21). Those two things?

  1. A shared interest
  2. A way to communicate

In these days of instant digital communications, this should be faster and easier than ever! :-p

2. Hierarchies are about management, not leadership

As a bit of a free thinker, Godin isn’t overly enamoured with structures and hierarchies. In fact, he uses them to explain the difference between managers and leaders:

Managers manage by using the authority the factory gives them. You listen to your manager or you lose your job. A manager can’t make change because that’s not his job. His job is to complete tasks assigned to him by someone else in the factory.

Leaders, on the other hand, don’t care very much for organizational structure or the official blessing of whatever factory they work for. They use passion and ideas to lead people, as opposed to using threats and bureaucracy to manage them. Leaders must become aware of how the organization works, because this awareness allows them to change it. (p.19)

I took this as meaning that managers work within their job description and expect others to do the same. Leaders, however, see the job description as indicative of a wider truth and ideal.

To demarcate qualities of leadership from those of management (there has to be some elements of management in senior positions, after all) Godin produces a list on p.107 of ‘The Elements of Leadership’. These, handily, all begin with a ‘C':

Leaders challenge the status quo.
Leaders create a culture around their goal and involve others in that culture.
Leaders have an extraordinary amount of curiosity about the world they’re trying to change.
Leaders use charisma (in a variety of forms) to attract and motivate followers.
Leaders communicate their vision of the future.
Leaders commit to a vision and make decisions based on that commitment.
Leaders connect their followers to one another. (my emphasis)

These are going on my wall. :-)

3. How to effect change

The biggest enemy to change is a surprising yet, on reflection, obvious one. Stalling change is actually worse than resisting it. After all, if someone refuses to engage with a problem there’s no way you can convince them of the errors of their ways!

The largest enemy of change and leadership isn’t a “no.” It’s a “not yet.” “Not yet” is the safest, easiest way to forestall change. “Not yet” gives the status quo a chance to regroup and put of the inevitable for just a little while longer.
Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late. (p.101 – my emphasis)

You could spend your whole time trying to convince others of the validity of, and need for, the change. But talking is sometimes an academic exercise. To quote a famous tagline, Just Do It!

Nobody is going to listen to your idea for change, sagely shake his head, and say, “Sure, go do that.”
No one anoints you as leader.

Change isn’t made by asking permission. Change is made by asking forgiveness, later. (p.60)

Godin says that leaders need to do two things which, to my mind, come under the one umbrella: walk the walk. First of all, leaders need to share ideas that are worth mentioning, that start conversations:

A remarkable product or service is like a purple cow. Brown cows are boring; purple ones are worth mentioning. Those ideas spread; those organization grow. The essence of what’s happening in the market day revolves around making purple cows. (p.38-9)

Second, leaders should stick to their principles by being radically different and selling that radical difference to others:

[G]reat leaders don’t try to please everyone. Great leaders don’t water down their message in order to make the tribe a bit bigger. Instead, they realize that a motivated, connected tribe in the midst of a movement is far more powerful that a larger group ever could be. (p.57)

But how do leaders effect this change in practice? How do you go from being a voice crying out in the wilderness to being the leader of a tribe? Godin tells us to target the curious people. These will do the work for you!

A curious person embraces the tension between his religion and something new, wrestles with it and through it, and then decides whether to embrace the new idea or reject it.

Curious people count. Not because there are a lot of them, but because they’re the ones who talk to people who are in a stupor. They’re the ones who lead the masses in the middle who are stuck. The masses in the middle have brainwashed themselves into thinking it’s safe to do nothing, which the curious can’t abide. (p.54)

Once you’ve gathered together your game-changers, it’s time for you as a leader to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer. Godin explains:

A thermostat is far more valuable than a thermometer.
The thermometer reveals that something is broken.

Organizations are filled with human thermometers. They can criticize or point out or just whine.
The thermostat, on the other hand, manages to change the environment in sync with the outside world. Every organization needs at least one thermostat. These are leaders who can create change in response to the outside world, and do it consistently over time. (p.87)

Conclusion

I found Seth Godin’s Tribes to be a great read. It ticked all of the boxes that I’d want from such a book. It’s concise, it’s practical, it’s aspirational, and you finish reading it feeling empowered.

Great stuff! :-D

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  1. Some very interesting points here Doug – particularly your observations of managers working within their job descriptions and thermostats being far more valuable than thermometers … :-D
    What’s on my mind at the moment is what makes an effective 21st century manager and leader? As more middle managers in education have their job titles changed from Head of Department to Subject Leader there is sometimes a clear contradiction in expectations as inappropriate hierarchies need divesting and a ‘be quiet and follow’ culture remain.
    The thermostat analogy is very powerful. I hope more and more emergent subject and senior leaders can truely change the (learning) environment in sync with the outside world as access restrictions to new tools and approaches to learning in the classroom continue to fall.

  2. Hi Doug,

    Thanks for summarising the gist of the book so well. Two things ring particularly true and relevant to me as I embark on my new role as Head of MFL:

    1) The Not Yet being more hampering than just a No. At least with a No you know where you stand, you can discuss alternatives and thrash out a solution. I’ve already encountered a couple of Not Yets, which is why I am intent on continuing to practice the principle outlined in point #2, below.

    2) Do first, ask later. This has been instinctive for me and did not need good ole Seth to point this one out. It has served me very well thus far. New initiatives have to be pushed by your own belief and, sometimes, have to be sold to people as if it was their idea all along. This is intrinsicly linked to my other main principle of “don’t take a problem to the people at the top, take a solution instead”.

    Thanks again for the overview.

    José

  3. I feel that I have gained a lot from your Ed.D already! Your leadership posts are wonderful because they distill the information well, and have a personal touch.

    I’ve just subscribed to Seth’s blog. It will help me with the classes I teach, and the roles I play.

    Cheers Doug!

  4. Anyone can be a leader. I couldn’t agree more. You don’t need to have the sheepskin or the big desk to be a leader. While management is bestowed, leadership is earned–and it doesn’t have formal prerequisites.