Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin


Tribes is about groups of people and the individuals who choose to lead those groups.

Tribes are simply groups of people with a shared interest and a way to communicate. With the rise of entrepreneurship and developments in online communication, there are more tribes now than have ever existed before.

Tribes are the future. Local activist groups can create more change than large NGO's. Small, lean startups can influence industries more than their larger, bloated counterparts.

All of these tribes are in need of leaders. Will you step up and be that needed leader? This is a book for anyone who chooses to lead a tribe.

The Rise of Tribes

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What is a Tribe?

As defined by Seth Godin,

A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.

Humans are naturally social creatures; we have an innate need to belong. We organize ourselves into tribes, groups of people that we can be a part of, contribute to, and take from.

Tribes are about faith—about belief in an idea and in a community. Tribes are grounded in respect and admiration for the leader of the tribe and for the other members as well.

Leadership plays a critical role in the creation and expansion of a tribe.

Tribes need leadership. Sometimes one person leads, sometimes more... You can’t have a tribe without a leader—and you can’t be a leader without a tribe.

Tribes Used to Be Local

Geography used to be important in organizing a tribe because people had to be physically close to one another in order to communicate. Now, because of the internet and advancements in communication, existing tribes can be much larger. And equally as important, new tribes can be much smaller. Tribes can exist now that never would have been possible before.

For someone with a very specific interest, it would have been nearly impossible for them to be a part of a tribe only a generation ago. Now, even if there is only one person per town who has that specific interest, that means there are still thousands of people with that interest who are able to be connected with each other through the internet.

Further Reading:

  • For more on our need to belong, read Social by Matthew Lieberman.

Our Cultural Revolution

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For decades we were taught that life consisted of getting a job in your town, working the hours set by your boss, and retiring several decades later. This is no longer enough for us. 

Three things have happened: People have changed. Organizations have changed. Consumers have changed. 

People realized that working long hours isn't the answer. Working on meaningful work they enjoy is far more satisfying than just getting a paycheck and waiting to retire.

Organizations discovered that producing goods and services in the factory-centric model is not nearly as profitable as it used to be.

Consumers decided to change why they spend their money. Consumers don't want off-the-shelf ideas, they want to spend time and money on fashion, on stories, on things that matter, and on things they believe in.

Seth Godin aligns with Daniel Pink who coined the term "Free Agent Nation" to talk about the growing movement of smart people who are leaving organizations so they can go out and work on their own.

The Free Agent Nation preaches that you already have everything you need to build something. You can create a video that reaches fifty million viewers or you can invent a pricing model that turns an industry upside down. Everything you need is available to you - all you need to do is get started.

Further Reading

  • For more on the rise of a free agent nation, read the book of the same name, Free Agent Nation by Daniel Pink.
  • For more on being a solopreneur, read The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

Become a Heretic

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Our cultural revolution has shown us that "the people who like their jobs the most are also the ones who are doing the best work, making the greatest impact, and changing the most." This revolution calls for going against the grain to blaze your own path.

Heretics are the ones who are challenging the status quo with a steadfast commitment to their beliefs. Heretics are the ones who getting out in front of tribes and creating movements.

Heretics are the new leaders.

The marketplace now rewards (and embraces) the heretics. It’s clearly more fun to make the rules than to follow them, and for the first time, it’s also profitable, powerful, and productive to do just that.

Good ideas aren't hard to come by. Tens of thousands of people are walking around right now with ideas. Some of the ideas are great, others are just pretty good, but there is no shortage of ideas. 

What’s missing is the will to make the ideas happen. In a battle between two ideas, the best one doesn’t necessarily win. No, the idea that wins is the one with the most fearless heretic behind it.

Lessons of Tribal Leadership

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There are more tribes than ever before and more tribes are created every day. "Every one of these tribes is yearning for leadership and connection. This is an opportunity for you." Anyone who wants to make a difference can.

Why Should You Lead? And Why Now?

Seth Godin defines his thesis: (Quoted verbatim) 

  • For the first time ever, everyone in an organization—not just the boss—is expected to lead.
  • The very structure of today’s workplace means that it’s easier than ever to change things and that individuals have more leverage than ever before.
  • The marketplace is rewarding organizations and individuals who change things and create remarkable products and services.
  • It’s engaging, thrilling, profitable, and fun.
  • Most of all, there is a tribe of fellow employees or customers or investors or believers or hobbyists or readers just waiting for you to connect them to one another and lead them where they want to go.

The Elements of Leadership

Seth Godin lays out what he feels are some of the critical elements for successful leadership:

Leaders challenge the status quo.
Leaders create a culture around their goal and involve others in that culture.
Leaders have an extraordinary amount of curiosity about the world they’re trying to change.
Leaders use charisma (in a variety of forms) to attract and motivate followers.
Leaders communicate their vision of the future.
Leaders commit to a vision and make decisions based on that commitment.
Leaders connect their followers to one another.

Leaders Are Generous

In contrast to what many people believe, the best leaders aren't egomaniacs; the best leaders are generous. Great leaders focus on the tribe and only on the tribe. Great leaders aren't doing what they do for glory, they're doing it to help.

Leaders who set out to give are more productive than leaders who seek to get. The benefits to these leaders aren’t monetary or based on status, instead, they get their compensation from watching the tribe thrive.

As the ability to lead a tribe becomes open to more people, it’s interesting to note that those who take that opportunity (and those who succeed most often) are doing it because of what they can do for the tribe, not because of what the tribe can do for them.

What Does a Leader Look Like?

Seth Godin, through all of his travels and business ventures, says there's not one single image of a successful leader. He elaborates:

I’ve met leaders all over the world, on several continents, and in every profession. I’ve met young leaders and old ones, leaders with big tribes and tiny ones. I can tell you this: leaders have nothing in common. They don’t share gender or income level or geography. There’s no gene, no schooling, no parentage, no profession.

In other words, leaders aren’t born. I’m sure of it.

Actually, they do have one thing in common. Every tribe leader I’ve ever met shares one thing: the decision to lead.

Overcoming Fear and Discomfort

Good leadership is rare because few people are willing to deal with the inevitable discomfort that comes with leadership.

It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers.
It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail.
It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo.
It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle.

When you can identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. Seth Godin adds, "if you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader."

So if we know that tribes reward innovation, and we also know that initiators are happier, then why do so few people do it? Godin says it's because of fear.

Fear is a deeply hard-wired emotion. We all experience fear. Top performers and high-achievers still experience fear, but what makes heretics different is that they have actively talked themselves out of the fear. "The fear is still there, but it’s drowned out by a different story."

It’s the story of success, of drive, of doing something that matters. It’s an intellectual story about what the world (or your industry or your project) needs and how your insight can help make a difference.

Lead When the Time is Right

Leadership is essential to the survival of tribes, but it may not make sense for someone to lead in all situations. Godin explains,

Sometimes, though, it may make more sense to take the follow. Leading when you don’t know where to go, when you don’t have the commitment or the passion, or worst of all, when you can’t overcome your fear—that sort of leading is worse than none at all. 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.

He follows by summarizing the call of leadership:

The power of this new era is simple: if you want to (need to, must!) lead, then you can. It’s easier than ever and we need you. But if this isn’t the right moment, if this isn’t the right cause, then hold off. Generous and authentic leadership will always defeat the selfish efforts of someone doing it just because they can.

Further Reading

  • For more on generous leadership, read Give and Take by Adam Grant.


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Tribes Don't Try to Please Everyone

What you have to do is motivate people who choose to follow you. "The rest of the population is free to ignore you or disagree with you or move on."

Starbucks doesn’t serve coffee to the majority of people in the United States. The New York City Crochet Guild appeals to just a small percentage of the people who encounter it. That’s okay. You don’t need a plurality or even a majority. In fact, in nearly every case, trying to lead everyone results in leading no one in particular.

Great tribes don’t try to please everyone by watering down their message in order to make the tribe a bit bigger.

Instead, they realize that a motivated, connected tribe in the midst of a movement is far more powerful than a larger group could ever be.

Tribes are Full of Partisans

All tribes are made up of partisans. Seth argues, "the more partisan the better. [Because,] if you’re a middle-of-the-roader, you don’t bother joining a tribe."

Partisans want to make a difference. Partisans want something to happen (and something else not to happen). Leaders lead when they take positions, when they connect with their tribes, and when they help the tribe connect to itself.


Seth reminds the reader that of course, a tribe needs followers. Specifically, followers that aren't just willing to follow but eager to follow.

He warns, though, that it’s a mistake to believe that your best tribe recruits are blind sheep. He says that mindless followers will let you down in two ways.

First, they’re not going to do the local leadership required when tribe members interact. They’re going to be so busy following the playbook that they’ll hesitate about engaging in the interactions that make a tight tribe such a vibrant organization. People don’t engage merely to remind one another of the status quo. Instead, they eagerly engage when they want something to improve. This microleadership is essential to the health of your organization.

Second, they’re not going to do a very good job of recruiting new members to your tribe. That’s because evangelism requires leadership. Leading someone toward giving up one worldview and embracing yours isn’t easy and it’s not always comfortable. Consider any vibrant group—political activists, nonprofit volunteers, or brand fanatics. In each case, it’s the microleaders in the trenches and their enthusiastic followers who make the difference, not the honcho who is ostensibly running the group.

A Strong Message

Seth says that our society, and the future, is less about advertising and more about selling stories. 

People don’t believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves. What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change.

Marketing used to be about advertising, but today, marketing is about selling products and services with stories that spread.

The marketplace has raised its voice. It’s now clear that we want novelty and style and, most of all, stuff that’s great. If you want us to follow you, don’t be boring.


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How Many Fans Do You Have?

Kevin Kelly posted an article on his website, The Technium, which brilliantly described the concept of “1,000 True Fans.” Many entrepreneurs strive to create a business as large as Facebook or Google. While that may be the goal for some, for others it's neither achievable nor desirable. For many entrepreneurs having 1,000 true fans is all you need to create a sustainable business or a thriving tribe.

A true fan, [Kelly] argues, is a member of the tribe who cares deeply about you and your work. That person will cross the street to buy from you or bring a friend to hear you or invest a little extra to support you. An individual artist needs only a thousand true fans in her tribe. It’s enough. It’s enough because a thousand fans will bring you enough attention and support to make a great living, to reach more people, to do great work. It’s enough because a thousand fans, true fans, form a tribe.

Many organizations and businesses ignore this message. They're more concerned with numbers than fans. 

They care about hits or turnstile clicks or media mentions. What they’re missing is the depth of commitment and interconnection that true fans deliver. Instead of always being on the hunt for one more set of eyeballs, true leaders have figured out that the real win is in turning a casual fan into a true one. Fans, true fans, are hard to find and precious. Just a few can change everything. What they demand, though, is generosity and bravery.

Larger vs. Tighter

When you've created a tribe it can be tempting to push to make the tribe bigger. Godin warns against that urge. He says the desire to make a larger tribe pales "when juxtaposed with the effects of a tighter tribe."

A tighter tribe, as opposed to a larger tribe, is "a tribe that communicates more quickly, with alacrity and emotion." Tighter tribes thrive.

A tighter tribe is one that is more likely to hear its leader, and more likely still to coordinate action and ideas across the members of the tribe.

While today we have a certain set of tools and a few dominant social media networks, Godin says not to stress about the medium too much. 

Personally, I can’t imagine the technology mattering much. Blogs and Twitter and all manner of other tools will come and go, possibly by the time you read this. The tactics are irrelevant, and the technology will always be changing. The essential lesson is that every day it gets easier to tighten the relationship you have with the people who choose to follow you.

Creating A Micromovement

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A movement has three elements:

  1. A narrative that tells a story about who we are and the future we’re trying to build,
  2. A connection between and among the leader and the tribe,
  3. Something to do—the fewer limits, the better.
There’s a difference between telling people what to do and inciting a movement. The movement happens when people talk to one another, when ideas spread within the community, and most of all, when peer support leads people to do what they always knew was the right thing.

Movements are started when tribes are empowered to communicate with each and establish the foundations for action. 

If you want to start a movement, Seth lays out five things to do and six principles to remember in your pursuit of fulfilling work.

    Five Things to Do: (Quoted Verbatim)

    1. Publish a manifesto. Give it away and make it easy for the manifesto to spread far and wide. It doesn’t have to be printed or even written. But it’s a mantra and a motto and a way of looking at the world. It unites your tribe members and gives them a structure.
    2. Make it easy for your followers to connect with you. It could be as simple as visiting you or e-mailing you or watching you on television. Or it could be as rich and complex as interacting with you on Facebook or joining your social network on Ning.
    3. Make it easy for your followers to connect with one another. There’s that little nod that one restaurant regular gives to another recognized regular. Or the shared drink in an airport lounge. Even better is the camaraderie developed by volunteers on a political campaign or insiders involved in a new product launch. Great leaders figure out how to make these interactions happen.
    4. Realize that money is not the point of a movement. Money exists merely to enable it. The moment you try to cash out is the moment you stunt the growth of your movement.
    5. Track your progress. Do it publicly and create pathways for your followers to contribute to that progress.

    Principles: (Quoted Verbatim)

    1. Transparency really is your only option. Every failed televangelist has learned this the hard way. The people who follow you aren’t stupid. You might go down in scandal or, more likely, from ennui. People can smell subterfuge from a mile away.
    2. Your movement needs to be bigger than you. An author and his book, for example, don’t constitute a movement. Changing the way people apply to college does.
    3. Movements that grow, thrive. Every day they get better and more powerful. You’ll get there soon enough. Don’t mortgage today just because you’re in a hurry.
    4. Movements are made most clear when compared to the status quo or to movements that work to push the other direction. Movements do less well when compared to other movements with similar goals. Instead of beating them, join them.
    5. Exclude outsiders. Exclusion is an extremely powerful force for loyalty and attention. Who isn’t part of your movement matters almost as much as who is.
    6. Tearing others down is never as helpful to a movement as building your followers up.

    Where to Buy

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    Buy the book on AmazonBarnes and NobleBAM, or just Google it. (I receive no kickback or commission for these links or summaries. See my disclosure for more.)


    • The difference between tribes and crowds
    • Why stability is an illusion
    • The impact and influence of the new Free Agent Nation
    • The difference between managers and leaders
    • How to create something worth criticizing
    • How to avoid the traps of perfectionism
    • And much, much more!