In my post today I’m writing my review of Tribes by Seth Godin. I’m going to start out with the things that I thought were most helpful and interesting about the book and then after that first paragraph I’m going to tell you why I wouldn’t bother picking it up if you haven’t already. I know a lot of people liked the book so I expect some disagreement. Feel free to use the comments section if you’d like to voice your own opinions, good or bad.
The main point of Godin’s book is that everyone is capable of being the leader of a tribe and that technology today makes it much easier to be one. Being a leader also lets you make big, important, useful changes to the way things are done. Tribes are basically just groups of people focused on a good idea, or a good new way of doing things. Godin argues quite successfully that leaders aren’t just “the management,” instead leaders are the people who get a bunch of other people excited about an idea. Those tribe members can come from anywhere, not just the people you happen to be above in the chain of command at your organization. Godin gives dozens of examples of people who have been very successful at forming these kinds of tribes and who have accomplished some amazing things. All of this is great. It’s a little motivational speakerish, but it’s good to see that anyone should be capable of creating a movement and that those who create these movements can be very successful. It is a good way of looking at the world. Knowing you can make a difference, having a good idea, and speaking up and getting some people to agree with you is all it really takes.
One of my problems with the book, though, is that Godin doesn’t say much more than that. He says what I said in that single paragraph over and over for 151 pages and gives some flashy examples. They’re not even 151 long, weighty pages. You can literally finish this book in an hour or two, depending on how fast you read. Not that a good message in an easily digested package is a bad thing, but this message is overly simplistic and reads more like a pep talk rather than actual business advice. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the point Godin makes several times in the book, that he is not offering a step by step plan for success. I have no problem with that. One of the great faults I find with many business management books is that they provide step by step plans based on what happened to work once or twice in a couple of companies. The problem here is that all Godin has done is removed the step by step plan from those types of books. He is essentially showing us a few dozen successful tribes and then saying go be like them. Godin doesn’t show us any tribes that were not successful in achieving their aims, nor does he give us much evidence to back up the vague things he does tell us. In fact, he throws out some statements that are clearly untrue, or at least would require some explanation to be interpreted as true. For example on pg. 36 he says “the best-selling books are always the surprise hits that come out of nowhere.” Perhaps Godin had blocked out the increasing amount of frenzy during the subsequent releases of each Harry Potter book, but I have not. Each one of the books in that seven book series sold more than the previous volume and there certainly was not much surprise at this fact. You could perhaps argue that the success of the series as a whole was unexpected, but that’s not really saying the same thing. In any case, that was just one statement that he may have exaggerated beyond reason and I could forgive him that. My problem is more that the entire book is filled with statements like that and it is hard to know which ones are actually true.
One of the other annoying things about Tribes is that Godin acts as though everyone can be a leader all of the time. He writes that “Management is about manipulating resources to get a known job done,” but leadership “is about creating change that you believe in.” (13-14) He goes on to say “Managers make widgets. Leaders make change.” (14) That may be true and I suppose his point is really that we need to allow the widget makers the chance to voice opinions and lead, but I’ve worked in factories that made widgets. Those factories are not necessarily against change, but when your job is making widgets there aren’t all that many opportunities to propose earth shattering change. I get the feeling while reading this book that it has been a long time since Godin had a job that was on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, if he ever had one at all. Some of his other remarks about how management often works in big corporations seem equally off base. He tends to makes it sound as though most of us are working in cubical farms under the lash of managers that accept no attempts by their underlings at change or improvement. Even in the most poorly managed organizations that I’ve worked for I’ve never found that to be the case. Managers tend to be just as willing to accept positive change as any normal person is. This does partly support his main point that anybody can lead and form a tribe so it may be simply that his metaphorical “managers” are not meant to be taken literally. Godin’s “managers” are completely separated from the leaders even though reality doesn’t really work that way.
My final complaint about the book is a small one. If you’re already tired of hearing me whine about it, you won’t miss anything by skipping this last bit. Feel free to move along to the comments if you wish.
Godin is far too optimistic about what kinds of things will start successful tribes. He seems to be under the impression that only good ideas for positive change will be able to sprout new and fantastic tribes. This is clearly not the case. In fact, I would argue that the ideas that are most likely to start new tribes are the ones that simply fit the emotional needs of a group of people. This is why conspiracy theories are always so popular and spread so fast. Whenever a group of people really wants to believe something they have a hard time letting mere facts stand in their way. The people who deny those facts often group together to form their own ill conceived tribes. Think of the 9/11 truth movement, the Moon landing hoax supporters, or the holocaust deniers. Those sorts of groups are gathering members to their tribes more and more easily. Tribes can certainly also be the more positive groups that Godin uses as examples, but don’t forget that just because you’ve started a successful tribe and gained a group of supporters that it doesn’t necessarily mean you are right or that your change is good.