26 July, 2009

If You Don't Believe Jesus, Maybe You'll Believe Seth Godin

Yesterday, while sitting in my driveway waiting for people to come buy my furniture and other contents of my house, I started reading a Seth Godin book called Tribes. I've read other Seth Godin books so I new what I was in for. I knew it would be poorly organized. I knew there would be a lot of short sentences and sentence fragments. I knew there wouldn't be footnotes or a glossary or an index and that if I wanted to go back and find a passage I'd have to mark the page in some way because it would be impossible to find it again. Tribes doesn't even have a table of contents listing chapter titles.

Godin has become famous enough and has sold enough books now that he doesn't have to work hard at the craft of writing. His books at least the last few - are like, say, furniture that you put together yourself. The raw materials are there but the structure isn't. His books read like rough drafts or like beta software that is several iterations from gold. Godin knows that taking the time to re-write and polish his words won't make them sell any better, so he doesn't.

So why do I read Godin? I read Godin for the little factoids he drops into his books, the little illustrations, the little stories - some of them apocryphal, I'm sure. For example, had I not read Tribes I might not know that Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, once said Google was a house of cards, not even a real company. Godin told me this to illustrate how fast the innovators, the heretics, the upstarts like Microsoft can become hidebound keepers of a faith and persecutors of heretics and how quickly the heretics become the orthodoxy that resists change.

In a way, Tribes is another book about leadership but instead of starting where other leadership books start - with the massive, overinflated egos of the people who read books about how to become leaders - Godin focuses on the tribe itself and how leadership grows organically out of the technological and psychographic stew that hasn't really become a tribe yet. The leadership message of Tribes is a variation of the old saying "Find a parade and get in front of it."

Finding a parade and getting in front of it is what he did with this book. Had Godin not written it somebody else would have had to because for several years now people have been talking about the fundamentally tribal nature of human beings and how we all tend to informally arrange ourselves into tribes. Branding books have been telling us for years now that creating powerful brands is fundamentally about facilitating the human urge to belong to a cool tribe like Apple or Starbucks.

But Tribes isn't a book about marketing or branding. Tribes is about - well, let me quote Godin on what it's about - and it isn't easy since the book doesn't have an index or a table of contents: "A crowd is a tribe without a leader. A crowd is a tribe without communication. Most organizations spend their time marketing to the crowd. Smart organizations assemble the tribe."

The key words are "communication" and "assemble". Godin recognizes that the kind of organic leader he's writing about doesn't invent a tribe or an idea then try to persuade people to rally to that invention, rather the organic leader sees hints of tribedom in the crowds and then gets them communicating with each other until they start thinking of themselves as a tribe. To illustrate this, Godin shares his rememberance of the simple newsletter that put him on the leadership map when he was 24-years old and with a tiny software company called Spinnaker. After an internship, Spinnaker offered Godin a job launching a new brand. He had no secretary, no staff, no programmers and an impossible ship date.

So he launched a newsletter in which he extolled the virtues of the new brand and how exciting it was and bored programmers and engineers started asking if they could transfer to the new project. Godin doesn't claim the newsletter persuaded people to come to his team. Godin sensed that there were people at Spinnaker who wanted a challenge, a journey, a ride. His newsletter gave them a movement to sign up for and showed them where to sign up.

I've done it again. I've blogged wrong. This post is way too lengthy.

So let me wrap this up by violating another canon of blogging. I'm going to close by limiting my blog's audience, by making a personal reference to a local guy who knows there's a tribe within a crowd we have been calling "New Lexington" but who hasm in my opinion, been going about leading this pre-tribal crowd wrong way. Because we are both armchair theologians and barber shop Bible scholars, we have been communicating leadership principles to each other by swapping biblical references. I've been telling my aspiring tribal leader to notice that when Jesus came up to Jerusalem where he changed the world, he didn't try to persuade other tribal leaders to convert. He knew they wouldn't. Jesus knew that people who get their power and their livelihood from an old system don't help the guy who wants to introduce a new system. They fight it. They resist it. If need be, they crucify somebody.

Jesus took his message of a New Way to people who were mentally "up for grabs", people who weren't getting power or prestige or their livelihood from the Old Way, people who weren't invested in the Old Way. Jesus went to regular people who were just trying to earn a living. And they followed him.

Had nobody followed Jesus, taken him seriously, he wouldn't have been a threat to the established order, the powerful people who had a vested interest in suppressing dissent. Had nobody followed Jesus, the Roman occupiers and the Jewish religious leaders could have ignored him but when people began to listen to him and to follow him, Jesus couldn't be ignored.

I keep telling my friend that he will have no power to influence change until the tribal leaders of Old Lexington see people following him. And I don't mean Twitter followers. Until he has followers, he's just an egomaniac who wants attention or a lunatic with a Messiah complex but as soon as you have followers, you have influence.

People who get their power from the current power structure aren't going to follow a guy who wants to build a new power structure. So don't waste your time on them. Go to the disenfranchised and the disengaged and provide them with information and give them a way to identify and interact with each other.

My friend doesn't believe me. Or Jesus. So maybe he'll believe Seth Godin who said:

"Growth doesn't come from persuading the most loyal members of other tribes to join you. They will be the last to come around. Instead, you'll find more fertile ground among seekers, among people who desire the feeling they get when they're part of a vibrant, growing tribe, but who are still looking for that feeling."

"If you're trying to persuade... don't start with the leader of the opposition. Begin instead with the passionate individuals who haven't been embraced by other tribes yet. As you add more and more people like these, your option becomes safer and more powerful..."

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