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Preface to Seth Godin’s Tribes: Tribes are more than a trendy phenomenon (part 1)

July 18th, 2009 · 6 Comments · Entrepreneurs, Talents, Innovators

Given that Seth Godin’s Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us came out at the end of last year, the book has been reviewed extensively, and if you haven’t read it yet, I can only recommend that you do. I recently translated it into French and wrote a foreword for it — of which I made the English adaptation (three posts). 

Published in French by Diateino ( Available for pre-order. Hardcover – Sept 1, 2009; eBook available at (July 22, 2008).

Seth Godin’s Tribes has been an best-seller in the Leadership et Business & Investing categories since it came out (October 2008). This is not surprising. The book is short, easy to read and, like all of Seth Godin’s books, both entertaining and educational. 

A book that wakes you up… The book sounds like a motivational speech meant to shake up anyone who “would like” to start something – anything, a restaurant, a musical group, a company, a new product line, whatever – but who doesn’t feel up to the task, either afraid to jump in or terrorized at the idea of failing. Seth Godin passionately urges you to rid yourself of your fears and get going. To stimulate rather than reassure you (you are not allowed to do nothing), Godin slays a number of preconceived ideas regarding what constitutes an ideal leader. You don’t have to be a stud, a social butterfly, or a fashion plate. You can speak softly, even be somewhat reserved, like Meghan McDonald, a Team Rock coach in New Rochelle, NY; you can have a big ego like Steve Jobs if your creativity offsets its negative side effects; you can be low in a company’s totem pole, like Jim Deligatti, the third-tier McDonald franchisee who invented the Big Mac. Anybody can become a leader.

Leaders have no common traits, except for these: a constructive rejection of the status quo, the drive that enables them to change things, and optimism that provides a platform for people eager to go their way – to follow them. Because you won’t be a leader alone: you need a tribe, i.e. “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” So, create your tribe – or find a tribe that needs you. Opportunities are endless. Godin gives a multitude of examples as he writes, often randomly, in unstructured sections that flow in and out of each other. His message, however, remains unwavering: to stimulate his reader’s desire to get out of the business-as-usual mentality — when you pretend for days on end that everything is fine and dandy, yet are bored to tears.

You can read this book in several ways. At its simplest level, it sounds like an eloquent marketer’s declaration of faith sparklingly presenting the facets of two trendy words, “tribe” and “leadership.” Yet do not discount the value of the book by thinking “that’s sheer marketing” … or revise your opinions about marketing. If you have mixed feelings about public speakers paid to deliver motivational lectures, a pep talk of sorts, remember that the world that surrounds us is full of depressed masses who don’t know where to start to break free from the doldrums. So why not boost them a bit? ” Yes, you can,” was Obama’s slogan, sure, but also the 1972 rallying slogan popularized by César Chávez et Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers, a California farm workers union: “Sí, se puede”. After all, fervor is contagious before being pestilential! But there is more.

Tribes are more than a trendy phenomenon… More than a trendy phenomenon that can be grabbed to provide a book with a catchy title, tribes are a societal reality, most patently epitomized today by the popularity of social networks everywhere in the world, and of course, in France. Last February, a study performed by comScore, Inc. “showed that 22 million French Internet users visited at least one social networking site in December 2008, reaching 64 percent of the total French Internet audience.” This is up 45 percent from the previous year – even though the social media reach is still lower in France than in the UK (79.8 %) or Spain (74.6 %). Of all the social networks, Facebook is now the most visited, followed by Skyrock, and then Copains d’Avant, MySpace, FlickR, Trombi, hi5, Netlog, MySpace, Viadeo, and Badoo… to name a few.

Skyrock is a somewhat special case. Although apparently toppled from the top spot by Facebook as a social network, Skyrock is still ahead of Overblog and Blogger as a blog platform, not only in terms of unique visitors, but also because of the time spent by those visitors (54 minutes in average versus 10 minutes and 7 minutes for Overblog and Blogger respectively). Worth mentioning also is Skyrock’s unique position in the history of social networks in France. Created in 1986 by Pierre Bellanger (one of the most notorious contributors to the “free radio” movement who started Radio Paris 80, an early symbol of the media tribalism), Skyrock embraced the various forms on Urban Music in the 1990’s, then followed its audience to the Internet, created a blog platform in 2002, and positioned itself as a social network in 2007. In fact, Skyrock exemplary evolution illustrates both the diversity and the continuity of the notion of tribes since the 1980’s — that is, when the use of the word  “tribe” spread massively outside the sphere of anthropologists. 

Why, though, did people revive a word – or maybe a metaphor – that evokes a social connection predating the industrial era? Because it symbolizes a type of emotional, social bond that is smothered by abstract political institutions and national and international economic organizations that frame our daily lives. It expresses a need that Michel Maffesoli analyzed in a landmark book in 1988, The Time of the Tribes, The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. At the time, Maffesoli described the emergence of what he called a “post-modern archaism,” showing how individuals were evolving from the position of being functional entities within contractual groups towards emotion-based communities, “affectual” tribes, where they could see themselves as persons with a meaningful, fundamental role. This trend was described by Maffesoli as a shift from a primarily mechanistic social order to a complex and predominantly organic structure, and was illustrated by a simple, yet forceful diagram:

What people are looking for is not participating in a democracy where they are asked to vote once in a while, but be part of an environment where they can have an active role as leaders or as followers, dynamically sharing goals and emotions with others.  As an alternative to an overly rationalized society, people are tempted to choose the empathic atmosphere of tribes.

            As Maffesoli noted in the very early 80’s, these micro-movements primarily started as urban tribes – and, since then, the notion has been discussed in a number of books, one of the most recent being Ethan Watters’ Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment (2003). While various factors have triggered the formation of these initial micro-movements, the influence of music has always been the most noteworthy. It’s no wonder, then, that Seth Godin mentions the Grateful Dead’s pioneering importance early in his book: “ Forty years ago, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead made some decisions that changed the music industry for ever. You might not be in the music business and you may never have been to a Dead concert, but the impact the Dead made affects almost every industry, including yours.” The Grateful Dead’s emblematic power encompasses multiple aspects. In the mid 60’s, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were dominating the airwaves. The Grateful Dead broke away from music styles for the masses supported by the media, but also from the cliquey structures of counter-cultural, underground, or bohemian circles – instead, they moved music into the street. Street parties and open-air park events enabled the Dead to connect with their fans as well as have their fans connect among themselves. They also removed the barriers between musical genres, and developed a composite style that associated psychedelic rock, progressive bluegrass, country, blues, classical music composition structures, traditional and electronic instrumentation, and improvisation. By the end of the 70’s, the Grateful Dead following had solidified as Deadheads, one of most loyal, yet most diverse, fan clubs that has ever existed on the musical scene. (Patrick Leahy, elected to the Senate at 34 in 1974, and the current Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee was, and remains, a Deadhead!)

            The picture is clear: tribes, big and small, are among us. Twenty years ago, Maffesoli had to overcome the skepticism of a significant number of established European scholars when discussing the decline of individualism. He therefore burdened his analysis with rhetorical schemes that no longer sound relevant. Today, the collapse of ideologies and corporate organizations primarily worries those who are paid to maintain them, those who live off the status quo that Seth Godin slams throughout his book. The postmodern tribes that Godin addresses do not generate chaos; instead, they express creativity and entrepreneurial drive. His message is simple: stop getting hankered down with a factory mentality, waiting for a manager (who isn’t any more motivated than you are, but is merely following the motions) to give you orders. Stop wearing yourself away in a bureaucratic world where you are only meant to follow abstract instructions. Become a leader and win the support of others by creating your tribe, or find the leader capable of rekindling your enthusiasm. Be ready to turn into a “heretic” or to follow one, to initiate change, break rules, and question conventional wisdom. Outside companies, but also within. Tribal entrepreneurship is both a haven and a springboard for innovation, and grassroots initiatives do fuel change: “In an era of grassroots change, the top of the pyramid is too far away from where the action is to make much of a difference. It takes too long and it lacks impact. The top isn’t the top anymore because the streets are where the action is.”

 However enthused he may be about the rejuvenating power of tribes, Godin still acknowledges the repressiveness of older tribes — tribes that have grown too big, become too bureaucratic, whose mission diluted over time. That’s what makes the difference, according to him, between the American Automobile Association (AAA), with its millions of members, and the much smaller National Rifle Association (NRA). The challenge for a tribe is to keep its focus, keep an active leadership capable of dynamically updating its purpose in a world that moves quickly –this differentiates the postmodern tribes that Godin describes from interest groups, feudalisms, cliques, and casts that mainly cater to maintaining their image or their statutory advantages. Yet, the latter are also tribes, like it or not. As true as it is that any tribe tries to foster a sense of brother/sisterhood, fraternity between tribes is a whole different story.

Part 2: Urban tribes and digital tribes, two simultaneous phenomena

Part 3: The Convergence of Tribes: The Obama Campaign
Le Temps des tribus – le déclin de l’individualisme dans les sociétés de masse) was published in France en 1988 and again in 2000. The book was translated in 1996 (Sage Publications).

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