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.

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