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Tribes, Godin, and Godly Leadership

Crossway President and Publisher Lane T. Dennis, PhD., recently wrote on Seth Godin’s book Tribes (Portfolio 2008). We thought you might enjoy reading his reflections here.

Godin or Godly: A Critique and Reflections on Seth Godin’s Book, Tribes

I recently finished reading Seth Godin’s latest book titled Tribes, and I thought it would be helpful to provide some reflections on the basic thesis and content of the book, since it has become something of a cause célèbre and because of Godin’s influence as the author of ten other books, including Purple Cow.

My Basic Assessment

My basic assessment of Godin’s book, Tribes, is that the book is fundamentally at odds with what the Scriptures teach concerning the qualities, qualifications, and nature of godly leadership.  Or to put it another way, Tribes presents an understanding of leadership that is antithetical, for example, to the understanding of leadership represented by C. J. Mahaney and the Sovereign Grace churches (see e.g. Mahaney’s book Humility), by John Piper (e.g. Don’t Waste Your Life and Stand), and by Francis Schaeffer (e.g. the chapter titled “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” in No Little People).  If my understanding of Godin’s views on leadership is correct, I would also conclude that his position is antithetical to the position of Crossway as this has been understood by the Crossway Board of Directors and as I have sought to carry this out under the Board’s direction and authority over the last 35 years.

Godin’s Basic Position

Godin seems to be saying that organizations today (with possibly a very few exceptions) are run by leaders who defend the status quo in order to protect their own self interest – to the detriment of the organization itself and to the great harm of people who work for it.  For example, Godin notes that, “The goal of the corporation is to enrich the king [the CEO] and to keep him in power” (p. 15).  According to Godin, the leaders of today’s organizations are “forces for mediocrity” (p. 129), who lead with such a damaging effect that such organizations (in Godin’s words) “might as well have been run by Joseph Stalin” (p. 89).

Heretics, Deviants, and Religion

One of Godin’s main purposes in Tribes, it seems to me, is to incite people to take the initiative to become leaders of tribes within organizations, so that they and their tribes can “destroy the status quo” (p. 35) and thereby overthrow the existing leadership structure of the organization where they work.  The primary characteristics of this new generation of leaders are that they are heretics and deviants.  Similarly, with regard to religion, Godin comments that “human beings invented religion”; that “Religion at its best is a sort of mantra”; and that “successful heretics [i.e. the new generation of tribal leaders] create their own religions.”  Along the way Godin also belittles what he calls “sheepwalking” people who work faithfully and consistently on a daily basis (because “they are managed via fear,” p. 98), while he likewise deprecates a woman he met who wanted to work for ten years and then leave her job to have a baby (about which he comments, “What a waste,” p. 99).

Godin’s Solution – Heretic Leaders and Tribes

Godin’s solution specifically is that heretics and deviants must take the initiative to displace the leaders of established organizations, either by creating and leading a “tribe” within the established organizations or by creating and leading a tribe in the wider world.  Godin’s repeated challenges to this new generation of leaders include:   “This is a book for anyone who chooses to lead a tribe”; “You’re a leader. We need you”; “assemble a tribe and lead it”; “push on the path to becoming a heretic yourself”; “lead your tribe”; “The heretics are winning. You can (and must) join them”; “No one gives you permission or approval or a permit to lead”; “incite a tiny tribe”; “What are you waiting for?”

As noted above, the tribe may operate either within established organizations or outside of established organizations.  Godin indicates that the way that the tribe works within an organization is “to create a micromovement” that will “challenge the status quo and push something forward,” irrespective of whether the tribe has the authority to do so.  When this doesn’t work, Godin indicates that the best alternative is to “carve out a new tribe, to find the rabble-rousers and change leaders who are seeking new leadership and run with them instead.”  Within an organization, then, the tribe achieves its objectives by subverting the organizational structure and the authority of the organization’s leadership, to achieve the objectives of the tribe.  If this doesn’t work within the organization, Godin counsels that the best thing for the deviant leader is just to say “I’m heading off” and to leave the organization.

Happiness

Lastly, I would mention that, for Godin, the basic goal which provides the motivation for a person to become a leader of a tribe is to achieve personal happiness though taking leadership initiative (p. 36), and so to be the kind of person “who’s having more fun.” “Heretics are…happier than everyone else.”

Godin or Godly

The godly leader, of course, stands in stark contrast to Godin’s heretic, deviant, personal happiness-driven leader.  The godly leader is a person “who is humble and contrite in spirit and who trembles at [God’s] word” (Isaiah 66:2).  The godly leader is a person who first and foremost fears the Lord (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10).  A godly leader is someone who recognizes that he can do nothing apart from abiding in Christ (John 15:4–5); someone who does not seek to be first but who is servant of all (Mark 9:33–37; 10:36–45).  But of course, the most important characteristic is that the sole object of the godly leader is to glorify Christ (rather than Godin’s highest goal of personal happiness).

Conclusion

Although I would acknowledge that there some concepts and insights that one can profitably learn from Seth Godin’s book (e.g. about the significance of blogging, electronic media, social networks, and community), the overall content of Tribes is diametrically opposed (in my judgment) to the biblical understanding of godly leadership. To the extent that Christian organizations, and the leaders of tribes within Christian organizations, adopt Godin’s overall analysis and understanding, the result will be clearly contrary to Scripture.

The Alternative

What then is the alternative?  The alternative is to affirm a fully orbed biblical understanding of vision, ministry, and calling.  Organizations that do this will be characterized by an understanding of leadership, authority, responsibility, and organizational structure that is faithful to God’s revealed intentions.  Such organizations will view every person in the organization as someone who is created in the image of God, with unique gifts and abilities, who is able to make a significant contribution in his or her specific area of responsibility – including, for example, in the case of publishing, the person who packs the boxes, who answers the phone, who inputs orders, who edits copy, who designs books, who writes software, who places ads, who makes sales calls, who does the accounting.  Such organizations will place great value on creativity and excellence in the things that they produce (which again stands in sharp contrast to Godin’s conclusion that “Quality is not only not necessary, for many items it is undesirable,” p. 139).  The goal of such organizations will be first and foremost to glorify Christ.  Again, in the case of publishing, this will extend not only to the things that we publish but also to the way we carry out every area of our vision, ministry, and calling.  My prayer is that this would indeed be the case in all that we do at Crossway – by God’s grace alone and for his glory alone.

Alternative Leadership Resources

The following is a list of a few biblically based leadership resources, all of which stand in sharp contrast to the analysis, strategy, and tactics that Seth Godin has advocated in Tribes:

Books by C. J. MahaneyThe Cross Centered Life and Humility (published by Multnomah).  Both of these titles are outstanding.  Mahaney presents a beautifully developed, fully orbed biblical understanding of what it means to be a leader, which is diametrically opposed to the principles advocated by Godin.

Books by John PiperDon’t Waste Your Life and Stand (published by Crossway; Stand is edited by Piper and Justin Taylor).  The first book is “classic Piper” at his best, and the second is a collection of foundational addresses on the Christian life, given by leaders who have proven their faithfulness over the years (including John MacArthur, Randy Alcorn, Jerry Bridges, and Helen Roseveare).  I would also recommend a third book by Piper, Brothers We Are Not Professionals (published by Broadman & Holman), which persuasively argues for the antithetical difference between the worldly understanding and the biblical understanding of leadership in pastoral ministry.

A Chapter by Francis Schaeffer:  This chapter, “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way” (in Schaeffer’s book No Little People), is foundational to my own understanding of Crossway’s ministry and calling in Christian publishing.  But it would also be of much value to other Christian ministries and to individual Christians.

A Book on the New Media:  The recent Crossway book titled The New Media Frontier: Blogging, Vlogging, and Podcasting for Christ (edited by John Mark Reynolds and Roger Overton) provides a very helpful overview and understanding of the new media, including both the challenges and the potential that it affords.

A Book by D. A. Carson:  Carson’s book, The Cross and Christian Ministry (published by Baker), is especially helpful in warning against the dangers of “adopting too many models from [the] surrounding world,” and for carefully articulating the implications of the Cross for Christian ministry and leadership.

December 4, 2008 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Life / Doctrine,The Christian Life,Work / Vocation | Author: James Kinnard @ 3:01 pm | (18) Comments »

18 Comments »

  1. I nearly bought “Tribes” a couple weeks ago, but had second thoughts. Your review confirmed my suspicions that little of Godin’s leadership model would apply in biblical Christian ministry.

    I am especially grateful for your list of alternative leadership resources.

    Thank you for this thoughtful review.

    Comment by Matthew Carroll — December 5, 2008 @ 12:15 am

  2. This review sounds like a “Heretic Leader” speaking to his Tribe. NOT “Humble Leadership.” From a proud employee maybe, but from the President. Really? I can tell he read the book, he’s putting it into practice.

    Comment by JT — December 5, 2008 @ 8:10 am

  3. [...] Interesting article from Crossway President and Publisher Lane T. Dennis about Christian differences with Seth Godin’s book Tribes, which seems to be all the rage lately (witness his speaking at Catalyst 2008) Although I would acknowledge that there some concepts and insights that one can profitably learn from Seth Godin’s book (e.g. about the significance of blogging, electronic media, social networks, and community), the overall content of Tribes is diametrically opposed (in my judgment) to the biblical understanding of godly leadership. To the extent that Christian organizations, and the leaders of tribes within Christian organizations, adopt Godin’s overall analysis and understanding, the result will be clearly contrary to Scripture. [From Tribes, Godin, and Godly Leadership] [...]

    Pingback by Intersected » Blog Archive » Tribes, Godin, and Godly Leadership — December 5, 2008 @ 11:35 am

  4. Not a theologian, but a great book about leadership. See what he says about “The alternative is to affirm a fully orbed biblical understanding of vision, ministry, and calling” in real life.

    http://www.shinevision.com/

    Comment by Larry Geiger — December 5, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  5. I can’t believe that Lane has willfully misinterpreted my book, so I guess he didn’t understand my intent, my work or the book itself.

    I couldn’t agree more with his statement that, “…unique gifts and abilities, who is able to make a significant contribution in his or her specific area of responsibility – including, for example, in the case of publishing, the person who packs the boxes, who answers the phone, who inputs orders, who edits copy, who designs books, who writes software, who places ads, who makes sales calls, who does the accounting. Such organizations will place great value on creativity and excellence in the things that they produce.” That’s been at the heart of my message for years. If you write software, write great software, software that challenges expected limits, and sell the ideas behind your work by leading those that are willing to listen. Lead, don’t manage. Motivate, don’t dictate.

    However, in rejecting my idea that people refuse to be sheep, that they stand up for what they believe in, that they spread ideas worth spreading and that they actively reach out to lead people in a direction we want to go, I wonder what his alternative is? Are you saying that the only good people are sheep, sheep that follow you, the ordained leader and do what they’re told?

    If so, I have two questions:
    1. Who picked that leader to be the leader? What if that choice isn’t so great? What happens when the leader doesn’t get it?
    and
    2. 600 years ago, wouldn’t the leaders of this church have been burned at the stake? Today’s traditional leaders were yesterday’s heretics, no?

    Comment by Seth Godin — December 5, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

  6. i am no phd. in fact, i only have 10 hours of college credit and i actually got a b in my history of the new testament class :)

    …but wasn’t jesus considered a heretic by the religious people of his day?

    …didn’t he live to overthrow the status quo of old law, spreading the idea of love, grace, forgiveness instead of legalistic process and regulations?

    Comment by anne jackson — December 7, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

  7. I am reading through tribes now. By the way Seth gave away around 10,000 copies of his book at catalyst. That in it self has made me commit to read it. Have seen nothing in it i disagree with. Great book. Thank you seth.

    Comment by david — December 7, 2008 @ 7:05 pm

  8. The trend in this nation is nothing but dog eat dog or a me first attitude. If you want to lead, but not manage, the question has to be if you really care about your customers or even those that work for you. It’s not about the tribe that follows you in the end. It’s about those that follow you most closely, and how their lives have been changed as a result. That’s where Jesus stands alone as our example.

    Amazing how the Bible’s teachings on humility and constant service or rejected when fame and wealth are in the crosshairs. The best leaders are the best listeners. Or is it really all about screaming as loud as you can and making sure people hear you?

    Comment by Gabe Taviano — December 7, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

  9. I really think you are missing the very heart of the book, I would think that Jesus would be considered a great example of a leader through the eyes of Godin and this book. You are going with the letter and not the spirit of the law.

    Comment by Royzoner — December 8, 2008 @ 9:45 am

  10. I took the use of the term heretic at it’s core meaning and felt like Seth, while clearly not writing from a Christian worldview, correctly identified the need for more people to stand up and out for the things they are passionate about. I think Nehemiah would have easily been a “heretic”. I hope to lead more with a passionate vision and less sheep-like as I seek to do the work God has set before me. Tribes was an encouragement in that. [If you want a real shot in the arm try Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath]

    Looking at Tribes through a Christian worldview filter, leadership becomes this amazing opportunity to model the life of Christ in every area. Keeping pride out from under our feet as we build our tribes becomes the chore.

    Comment by jh — December 8, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

  11. [...] Is Seth Godin’ TRIBES unbiblical leadership? An interesting discussion… [...]

    Pingback by Clayton Bell | Online » The Hot Links! 12.13.08 edition! — December 13, 2008 @ 7:47 am

  12. I just bought “Tribes” a few hours ago and read a few pages which were really good. I am speaking from a christian perspective here and wish to say that we do have thing to learn from the book. I don’t really understand why a review would be written to state that Seth’s book is not godly. It was not the intention of the book in the first place and that for me is enough to convince me that a review stating that the book does not meet a christian standard is simply absurd. It is not fair to the book. Hence if one want to read a book on specific christian leadership let them review that particular book in that manner. As for Seth’s book I would appreciate the reviewer reviews the book for what it is. Let’s remember that Christianity doesn’t have a handle on leadership. Leadership is for everyone…only different perspectives.

    Comment by Jon — December 19, 2008 @ 8:08 am

  13. Wow, I have read this book and I don’t see anything in it that supports this blog post. I really think you must have read this book intending to disagree with it because it seems like you have deliberately misunderstood it.

    Comment by Mindy — January 1, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  14. This misinterpretation is almost as bad as most misinterpretations of the bible. You took the time to cite quotes from his book taking them totally out of context.

    I am happy that Mr. Godin took the time to respond. His point about the woman taking 10 years then having a baby was that why waste those ten years not that she should not have the baby. If she took the time to be the leaders we are called to be in the Bible according to Jesus then she would not have to wait 10 years and could make a bigger difference in this world.

    Comment by Kevin — January 1, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  15. Seems to me that Mr Lane has used a gambit many marketers use to get comment and traffic to his blog. He has used the name of someone prominent and then weaved in just enough rhetoric to get people commenting.

    Great marketing of your blog, but anyone with any intelligence at all can see it’s all taken out of context just like most bible passages are to press home a point and try (in vain) to prove you’re right on some aspect. Interestingly I thought this post wasn’t written for the average internet user to truly understand it, as any long term internet writer would tell you to keep your writing at high school level language.

    I believe it was written instead to sound like an educated person was making a profound statement that could not be denied by most people who read it through lack of understanding of what was really being said.

    However if one extrapolates from the hypothesis of the original post one can easily see that this person (Lane) had marketing his blog in mind as his priority. And cudo’s to him it has worked as Seth himself has commented as have many others.

    Great marketing! extremely poor rating as a source of knowledge or truth.

    Comment by Annie — January 1, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

  16. Having read the book I do wonder if the blog post was written in fear of the status quo being questioned and the “power” of some leaders being usurped.

    Surely Christianity wants people to be the very best that they can be, and by doing that they sometimes lead and sometimes follow. To reject that whole principal in encouraging all to be blind obedient followers is what worries me about “religion” in the whole.

    If Christians are to be as close to God(Jesus) as possible, would they not wish to emulate his examples of leadership….

    Comment by Allison Reynolds — January 1, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

  17. This is a thought provoking review. I did not like the book, but never forget Christ himself was called a heretic. As in all things, take the good, leave the bad and accept the Holy Spirit’s guidance to know the difference.

    Comment by JL — January 1, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  18. You sound like a Pharisee.

    “Godin seems to be saying that organizations today (with possibly a very few exceptions) are run by leaders who defend the status quo in order to protect their own self interest – to the detriment of the organization itself and to the great harm of people who work for it.”

    I’ve seen this first hand in my church, which is now on the brink of bankruptcy. Every one on staff could see what was going on, but no one would speak, except me, and I was fired as a result. Now the person is gone, and the board finally knows the truth, but like I said, the church is in bad shape. Everyone was too afraid to be anything but a sheep.

    Comment by Me — January 1, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

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