A Book Review of Seth Godin’s Tribes: Good Message, Rotten Context

2010 Update: I made the decision to bring Say “Alaka‘i” here to Talking Story in late May of 2010 when the Honolulu Advertiser, where the blog previously appeared, was merged with the Star Bulletin (Read more at Say “Alaka‘i” is Returning to the Mothership).

Therefore, the post appearing below is a copy of the one which had originally appeared there on January 22, 2009, so we will be able to reference it in the future when the original url it had been published on is no more…


A Book Review of Seth Godin’s Tribes: Good Message, Rotten Context

I owe you a follow-up. From The Top 7 Business Themes on my 2009 Wish List:

5. The Role of the Manager reconstructed

Managers matter, yet we still don’t quite understand why they matter and how. Managers still work and operate in that vast wasteland called “middle management” where they are babysitting the mediocrity tolerated in our organizations instead of being stewards of the smart, professional, and mission-based disciplines which make them healthier. I am afraid that until the role of the manager changes, nothing else will.

A future preview:
Marketing Guru Seth Godin is enjoying some success right now with his latest book, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, and I will review it in a future blog post. In short, he seeks to elevate leadership —and I applaud his ideas in that regard, however he does so at the expense of management, and he depreciates the worth of managers nearly every single time he mentions them. I understand the comparison he is trying to make, however please don’t buy in to that notion that we don’t need managers —he is dead wrong.

As promised, this is my book review for Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us.

I’m normally quite an enthusiastic fan of marketing author Seth Godin, with several of his books in my library. I read his blog regularly, and thus had sweet anticipation built up for Tribes once he announced the book was to be released, for I had caught his early blog posts hinting to the thoughts he’d had simmering, discussing them with the readers of my coaching site.

However this time, Godin has written a book which annoyed me with its careless construction (what little there is), and disturbs me for a reason which cuts deeply for someone who thinks of herself as the managers’ advocate; Godin didn’t have to knock management in order to elevate leadership. A pity really, for the book could have stood on its own without him doing so —and with more editing and thoughtful construction. Tribes is a book which seemed to have been rushed to publication for some reason, with something I found to be very out of character for the writing I have come to expect from Seth Godin —several contradictions and an incomplete thesis. Unfortunately, the book comes off as an added revenue stream in his publishing empire versus a book with an important message.

Godin is a master at something I frequently will advocate with you: He chooses his vocabulary carefully, to create a ‘language of intention’ which gets talked about and communicated easily. His fans can tell you all about his “zooming,” who a “sneezer” is, why “purple cows” are remarkable, and about the ingredients in a “meatball sundae.” Brilliance. In that regard he doesn’t disappoint in Tribes, for it is rife with several gems, mostly winners he’s pulled out of past blog posts proven to resonate. However this time they are lined up with a jab here, and a joust there, and Godin seems to sputter pronouncements one after the other with very little effort at substantiating them. He seeks to be concise and pithy, (and he usually is), but in a convoluted Tribes I found him to be impatient and incomplete.

Then the punch to the gut: Godin has selected a word I revere, leadership, and has sought to define it as the better comparison to an anti-management message that is riddled with rude assumptions in the generalities he uses. For example;

“Management is about manipulating resources to get a known job done.
Managers manage a process they’ve seen before, and they react to the outside world, striving to make that process as fast and as cheap as possible.

Leadership, on the other hand is about creating change that you believe in.

Movements have leaders, and movements make things happen.

Leaders have followers; managers have employees.

Managers make widgets, leaders make change.”

Clearly, Godin doesn’t really understand what great managers really do.

Godin defines a tribe as “People connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” He says that tribes need two things; shared interest, and way to communicate. Oh, and a critical third need is this one: You “can’t have a tribe without a leader, and you can’t be a leader without a tribe.”

His core message is this one, a call to brave leadership: “Everyone is not just a marketer, everyone is a leader: Anyone who wants to make a difference can” The question isn’t ‘Is it possible?’ but ‘Will I choose to [lead]?’ ”The market needs you, we need you, and the tools are there just waiting. All that’s missing is you, and your vision, and your passion.”

This is a good message, and Godin’s book, his apparent call to arms within leadership, seeks to talk to us about two things: Not wasting the tools newly available to us every day, and being the leader possible movements need to make them happen. He’s quick to use internet examples, but the internet is just one tool, and he explains why “You don’t need a keyboard to lead, you just need the desire to make something happen. If you want to lead, and have the right cause, you can.”

I agree with much of what Godin says about leadership. For example, “Leadership is an act of generosity: You are providing fuel for a movement.” He devotes some time to explaining his belief that “People want connection, growth, something new: They want change” Being part of a tribe is one of our survival mechanisms” We can’t resist the rush of belonging, and the thrill of the new.” Sounds pretty good, right? However with each page turned, I found myself voicing one “yeah, but” after another, seeing the opportunity for management and leadership partnerships versus one being lifted at the expense of the other.

I honestly could continue with more snippets which share the potential of Tribes, but as I’ve already done in these few paragraphs, to do so requires a repackaging that would take considerable more work, work I feel Godin should have done for the price of his book. So I think I will leave it at this:

If you are a Seth Godin fan I expect that you will like Tribes. He loves to tell stories, and he shares quite a few entertaining ones. I agree with Godin on the opportunity which exists for more leadership in our world, and I think that a reader eager to lead can come away with quite a few triggers which will steer them in the right direction. I simply ask you to skip over the anti-management message, for it is quite irrelevant to the rest of the book, and it simply isn’t as true as Godin would have you believe. Managers matter.


  1. says

    The book has been sitting on my night stand half read since before Christmas. I can generally bang through a Seth Godin book without any trouble, but I have found Tribes difficult to get through. I haven’t tried to analyze why, but it doesn’t seem to “flow” like his other books.

  2. says

    Ian, that lack of flow you mention was a big factor in my own disappointment: I simply did not feel that Tribes was anywhere near the caliber of Seth Godin’s other works, where I could indeed appreciate his *work* on it. Tribes was more like a collection of blog posts which seemed to capitalize on his ready-made SG Tribe’s penchant for the “pithy” communication he is somewhat well-known for (…and perhaps that was part of the point?)
    I got my half-baked idea impression immediately when listening to it on audio, and then when I picked up the book itself my disappointment deepened… no Table of Contents, no index… the only other “book matter” being an Acknowledgement which blatantly acknowledges he attempted to run with ideas which came from other thought leaders. Though that said, credit to Godin for being the one who did carry through – somewhat.
    Quite an opportunity for the rest of us to keep building on the good ideas which *are* in the book though – and we don’t get the chance to one-up Seth Godin too often!

  3. says

    So I haven’t read the book and I don’t regularly read Seth Godin’s blog. But I can certainly sense your frustration with a book that bashes managers in the name of better leadership. This distinction we make between managers and leaders is so fascinating to me, and it is surely one I feel myself fall prey to sometimes, too. I think we really want to find a way to make a distinction between the “something” that interferes with real connection and passion, and the “something” that facilitates them. Perhaps, making a distinction between manager and leader is an easier way to get at this.
    This reminds me of insights by Marv Weisbord in his beautiful book, Productive Workplaces. There he examines the distinctions between Theory X leaders and Theory Y leaders articulated by Douglas McGregor — a distinction that’s driven much of modern theory about both leadership and management. McGregor sought to differentiate two different styles, Theory X, based on negative assumptions about human beings and motivations to work, and Theory Y, which took a more positive view of people. As McGregor’s ideas were disseminated, it was common for people to think of these styles as belonging to two different kinds of people, essentially autocrats and humanitarians. But Weisbord points out the obvious: that these styles do not represent two different kinds of people so much as simply people in different circumstances. We are all capable of Theory X ways of operating, and just as capable of Theory Y, depending on many factors and many circumstances. I may think of myself as Theory Y, but you can bet I have a Theory X side, and vice versa.
    So the same is really true, I believe, about this whole leadership/management quandary. We confuse circumstances and times for leadership and times for management. I have an effective manager in me; I have a rotten one, too. I have an effective leader and I have a despicable one, as well. These are different states of the same person — and the question, always the question — is whether these different states talk to each other. Can I know myself, my aspects, even the ones I am not so proud of? So I would ask, is Seth Grodin talking to himself, his whole self, in condemning management? Does he acknowledge the parts of himself that are bureaucratic, stagnant, petty, because if he is not, then the book you reviewed is one-sided at best. Frankly we can’t condemn much if we can’t find it in ourselves first. As they say, a shaman can’t cure anything he or she hasn’t previously found as a disease in his or her own being.
    Well, like I say, I haven’t read it and therefore have less right to evaluate, but maybe this will help anyway.

  4. says

    Aloha Dan! I must confess I enjoy making the distinction between management and leadership, and teaching it as I do, simply because it does beg discussion, and gets people talking in a way that also tends to trigger self-reflection.
    However I like to talk about them as verbs and not two different people: We all manage, and we all lead; we’re born to both and learn within both, making us the complex and fascinating creatures we are, capable of living in profound abundance.
    I do admit to having a very low tolerance for negativity about managers, especially when the comparison is so unnecessary: In my view, the book would have been better without it.

  5. says

    The value that I get from Godin’s “Tribes” is not the substance but the thought-provoking perspective he conveys. It is perspective that I find that I still need to reconcile for myself. For example, I didn’t need to resolve the leadership versus management notion as much as other ideas. For example, a month later, I’m still trying to reconcile his ideas around faith versus religion. I also have a hard time with the label “heretic.” I don’t feel a need to argue but I appreciate his message because it causes me to think and question.
    That’s the value that I find with his book. I can’t find the words to describe this. It’s not the substance, it’s the ___________. Any ideas?
    Thanks for exploring with me. I always appreciate your insight.

  6. says

    I know what you mean Don, for that is part of Godin’s attraction for me as well. There was an interesting bit in Tribes where he talked about the value of criticism, and admits he prefers it to people not paying attention to him at all. As a coach, I prefer authors who don’t give us answers too easily, but trigger us enough so that we will doggedly continue to seek answers for ourselves, and make them part of our own consequential learning: Seth Godin does this very well. He loves to drop rarely-spoken words back into our consciousness (like heretic – a toughie for me in this book too) or failing that, he’ll make them up (e.g. zoomers, sneezers in past publications).
    “Leverage” was another word he used in Tribes that became a trigger for me when I thought about another tribe I consider myself a dormant follower of, though it became yet another annoyance for me in this book, for I don’t think he used it well – or as well as he could have, but in my case, the trigger worked.
    So I guess my word for your blank would be “triggers.”
    Mahalo for keeping this conversation going Don, for I truly appreciate your ‘leading quietly’ yet thoughtfully perspective too!

  7. says

    I like it. “Triggers” labels the outcome perfectly.
    Godin certainly has the ability to trigger our thoughts.
    You are right about the words that he uses to label his concepts. Whether old words, new words or new combinations, he clearly is looking for unique labels and purple cows.


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