Seth Godin Tribes

You will find Seth Godin in my rather select list of ‘thought leader heroes’ on the left hand column so you can imagine my anticipation of his latest work ‘Tribes’ which extensively explored my favourite topic of Leadership and Management. Unfortunately favourite writer plus favourite subject did not result in favourite book. So how did all go so wrong in so many ways?

Godin’s easy reading, illustrative style has become too shallow and glib – sort of a Big Mac of punditry. His points are a stream of consciousness diatribe that he doesn’t seem to have wanted to take the time or bother to structure. His passion is edging on fanatical. But most importantly, a substantial portion of his book falls into the classic trap – that this blog spends much effort decrying – that ‘Management = bad Leadership.’

Some of the prominent examples of his Management slander include…

  • “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 you believe in. My thesaurus says that the best synonym for ‘leadership’ is ‘management’. Maybe that word used to fit, but no longer. Movements have leaders…Leaders have followers. Managers have employees. Managers make widgets. Leaders make change.”
  • “Managers manage by using authority the factory gives them…A manager can’t manage change because that’s not his job…Leaders, on the other hand, don’t care very much for organisation structures 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.”
  • “In unstable times, growth comes from leaders who create change and engage their organisations, instead of from managers who push their employees to do more for less.”
  • “Leadership almost always involves thinking and acting like the underdog…It requires bravery. Managing doesn’t.”
  • “Managers are the cynical ones. Managers are the pessimists…Leaders, on the other hand, have hope.”
  • “Managers stamp out deviants…Leaders understand that change is not only omnipresent, but the key to success.”

Geesh, Seth, did an MBA traumatise you as a child or something?? You’ve got some kind of chip on your shoulder for ‘Management’.

Seth’s wholesale bias toward one over the other is particularly as hazardous as it is imbalanced. It’s like Godin is still stuck in the Dot-com bubble-blowing mentality where everything is all sunny and upside. You would think after two major bubble bursts (Dot Com, Credit Crunch), folks like Godin would start to be a bit more balanced in their consideration of possible downsides. The book is copyrighted 2008 which meant was written sometime before the current crisis really came to the fore. Maybe today he would have a different perspective on the prudence of balancing against the downsides. But really, too many of problems of the world today stem from an overdose of this sky’s-the-limit, damn-the-torpedoes, upside-upside-upside, just-do-it, can-do, if you build it they will come attitude.

I realise that Seth is possibly exaggerating to either make a point or to shake up the plenty of complacent people out there. My fear though is that most of those lagard people are not his readers. Most of his readers will already been leaning towards the sentiments his espouses and the unbalanced polemic will only serve to shift them unhealthily of any appropriate balance.

Godin talks about a senior manager at Yahoo named Brad Garlinghouse who wrote a challenging memo that ended up with a Hollywood happy ending of him being promoted:

“[Brad] had the chutzpah to share his honest appraisal with the bosses. If Brad had gotten fired, there were dozens of other…companies that would have given him the opportunity to work with them instead….The media love to glamorize the rare downfall of the heretic who doesn’t quite make it…who lost his job, his house, his family – his happiness – because he had the hubris and audacity to challenge the status quo.” Actually, there is nothing glamorous about these very real downsides.

I would argue that the opposite is the case. Media, and pundits like Godin, love to glamorize the guy who hit it big ostensibly because he simply had the belief, and the guts. For every Brad who challenges and gets promoted, there are many others who do so and their lives up ended. Sure Seth can pepper his little white book with scores of colourful and aspirational tales of people who achieved great things with what his accounts describe as little more than PMA. Little regard is given to the hard work, the averted crises or the sheer good fortune.

The boundless optimism reminds me so much of so many DotCom business plans who all had the same visionary PowerPoint slides with hockey-stick inflection points several years in the future. And yet as things panned out, a similar story prevailed  Those who succeeded were the ones who figured out how to take the initial steps that paid the bills, but bread on the table, averted the minefields and step by step built a path to the future. Minimising the downside (ie. going out of business) which is what good Managers do so well, while pursuing the Leadership upside. The vision, the belief was not enough. In fact, it was the seduction and downfall of too many innocent workers and investors when not counterbalanced by good management.

Godin concludes – “The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.”

The ‘secret’ of leadership is not so simple. Do what you believe in and work your tail off to be damn good at it. Head there, but be mindful of the pitfalls along the way. Be ready to cope with the inevitable bad luck and make the most of the occasional good luck. People may follow.