Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Book Review: Seth Godin's "Tribes"

Last week, my wonderful manager handed me a copy of Seth Godin’s new book, Tribes. Since finishing it, I have been asked at least a half-dozen times whether it is worth a read.

I’m not going to recommend this book. I am going to tell you what I think, and what you can expect if you choose to read it. As for whether or not it’s worth a read, that decision is completely up to you.

What I like

I liked that Godin does not dismiss or disparage non-leaders.

“The merits of leadership are so ingrained that it’s natural to say, “I’ll take the lead.” Sometimes, though, it may make more sense to take the follow. […] It takes guts to acknowledge that perhaps this time, right now, you can’t lead. So get out of the way and take the follow instead.” – page 87

I also liked that Godin does not try to bait the reader into adopting his doctrine by dangling the standard carrot of success. Motivational writers are often guilty of portraying success as the Holy Grail – feeding off a reader’s desire for wealth, fame, or whatever they envision as the reward for being successful, whatever that means. Tribes doesn’t do this.

In addition, I would like to mention that a very large portion of this short book consists of anecdotes and case studies – stories of interesting and exciting people who took a risk and accomplished impressive things. I enjoy these tidbits a great deal, because they function as vivid illustrations of the thesis. Without these engaging little tales, Godin would be just another author harping about leadership. Instead, his writing embodies the classic copy writing mantra: show, don’t tell.

What I don’t like

I do not like the fact that Godin demonizes the word “manager”. Ever a fan of contrast and juxtaposition, he seems intent on glorifying “the leader” at the expense of “the manager”. While I am quite certain that what he is really trying to do is make a distinction between leadership styles, he ends up coming across as bitter. He dismisses the possibility of positive top-down change. He denies senior executives the right to spearhead a movement of their own, insisting that they must support junior leaders – or get out of the way.

Godin could have avoided demonizing managers the way he does by the insertion of one simple phrase: managers can be leaders too. Instead, he opts for saying things like this:

“Managers stamp out deviants. That’s what they do.” – page 132

Another thing I do not like about Tribes is that it contains several clear and puzzling contradictions. Godin appears to get so caught up in extolling the virtues of courage, passion, faith, and risk-taking that he forgets what he’s written the moment the page is turned. While the snappy, micro-chapter format makes Tribes easily digestible, it also reads a bit like Godin suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. I do hate to be petty, but Godin dilutes his message somewhat when he contradicts himself.

I will provide an example. Serving as an inspirational closing of the book, the following quote enjoys pride of place, occupying a page all to itself:

“I’m not sure where I’m going. I’ll lead!” – Emanuelle Heyman

Well that’s very nice, thought I. And yet I remain perplexed, for on page 87 Godin says:

“Leading when you don’t know where to go… that sort of leading is worse than none at all.”

Hrm. But let's move on to something interesting.

Something interesting

Seth Godin is a very capable writer. Subscribe to his blog and you will certainly see. Bloggers of all stripes (myself included) could stand to learn a thing or two from him. He is a master of writing for the Web… but something seemed off to me about the writing in this book.

Ay, there’s the rub: Godin is a blogger, and a good one. I discovered that reading what is indisputably Web writing on a printed page seems a little strange to me. You don’t see it very often. This is not a bad thing: thousands of loyal blog subscribers will buy this book and they expect the same writing style they know and love, be it tailored for the Internet or not. And Godin certainly delivers. The style you see on his blog is what you will see in Tribes – complete with funny little parenthetical interjections and overzealous use of juxtaposition.

Now pay attention, non-fiction writers, because I learned something here. As a veteran of many a literary essay, I have the habit of flagging quotations as I read a book, regardless of my reason for reading it. I generally flag quotations that appear to be important to the sense and progression of the book.

I hit page 45 and had to stop flagging what seemed to be important, because I was flagging almost everything I read. And therein lies a lesson any good blogger knows, and any non-fiction writer should learn: if it’s not important, if it doesn’t need to be said… don’t say it. Make every word count.

In any case, since I was unable to select quotations on the basis of importance, the quotes I’ve included at the end of this review were selected because I enjoy them, plain and simply put.

My conclusion

I liked this book. Tribes is the literary equivalent of low-calorie snack food. Consisting only of a tidy 160 pages, it is a short and easy read – something to tide you over between meals. The writing has a nice flavour to it and it makes you feel good about yourself.

One thing about low-calorie snacks is that they aren’t particularly nourishing. Tribes isn’t particularly rich in content or insight. It isn’t a manifesto, but it is interesting.

The other thing about low-calorie snacks is that they contain an implicit call to action. When I make the choice to eat a little package of those 100-calorie wafers – the ones that pretend to be Oreos – instead of demolishing a row of Double-Stuffs, I have to ask myself why I don’t make similarly healthy choices in all areas of my life. Tribes is like that: more than anything, it is a call to action. I have to ask myself why – if I went through the trouble to read a book on unconventional leadership – I don’t try my hand at being a leader more often.

And I think that is all Mr. Godin really intended to accomplish.

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Appendix: Quotes from the book

Many people are starting to realize that they work a lot and that working on stuff they believe in (and making things happen) is much more satisfying that just getting a paycheck and waiting to get fired (or die). – page 9

But the Internet is just a tool, an easy way to enable some tactics. The real power of tribes has nothing to do with the Internet and everything to do with people. You don’t need a keyboard to lead… you only need the desire to make something happen. – page 6

Organizations that destroy the status quo win. – page 35

“How was your day?” is a question that matters a lot more than it seems. – page 11

Leadership is a choice. It’s the choice to not do nothing. – page 59

All you need to do it motivate people who choose to follow you. The rest of the population is free to ignore you or disagree with you or move on. – page 65

You’re not going to be able to grow your career or your business or feed the tribe by going after most people. Most people are really good at ignoring new trends or great employees or big ideas. You can worry about most people all day, but I promise you that they’re not worried about you. – page 68

The art of leadership is understanding what you can’t compromise on. – page 79

The easiest thing is to react. The second easiest thing is to respond. But the hardest thing is to initiate. – page 86

The only thing that makes people and organizations great is their willingness to be not great along the way. The desire to fail on the way to reaching a bigger goal is the untold secret of success. – page 108

1 comment:

  1. Nice analysis, you aren't the first person I know/read who took issue with Seth's characterization of Managers.

    In case you missed it, here is my application of Tribes to the Public Service:


    Also, Etienne Laliberte's reaction can be found here:



    Nick Charney