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Tribes by Seth Godin

I remember in my second year of undergrad philosophy studying the writings of the pre-Socratic named Heraclitus. I found him most interesting. Whereas others in his era had though that the main element was one of the four elements, wind, fire, water, or earth, Heraclitus thought outside the box. He said the world was in constant flux; it was like a flowing river, no two moments would be exactly alike. Plato quoted him as saying, “Everything changes and nothing remains still and you cannot step twice into the same stream.” As a twenty-year-old, I could very much identify with this image of flux. Stability, even in the midst of a seminary run by Benedictine monks (one of who’s charisms is stability), I felt a constant movement. Maybe that’s what attracted me to Twitter five year later. Emotions certainly are in constant flux. Relationships had, after 20 years, come and gone, some willingly, some regrettably. Paradoxically, I found an idea on which I could hang my hat.

Until, that is, I read Plato, then Aristotle, and finally Aquinas. I cam to realize that there are certain things that are unchanging, namely God, and things connected to Him like truth, goodness, oneness, and beauty. From those things, called universals, one could set principles from which to hold firm amidst the change that happens in a word still experiencing its creations. Spiritually we can hold fast to a God who is an eternal rock. He will not be moved. Intellectually, we can rest ourselves on these universals that guide, direct, and are the end of our thought.

My problem with Seth Godin’s leadership manual Tribes is that he so embraces the Heraclitian concept of change he discards anything that is immutable and unmovable. Inso-doing, he philosophically weakens his assertions, some of which are great insights into leading post-modern man. The core of the leadership ideal in the book is two-fold. 1) Tribes naturally arise in human communities and they yearn for a leader 2) That leader necessarily must be someone who bucks the status quo (he calls this person a heretic) to be a successful leader of a tribe. Both ideals are centered on the concept of the word in constant change and the leader is the one, who understanding this, effects the change instead of being effected by it.

By basing his whole ideal on the fact that everything changes means that, at some point, even what he sets up will no longer be relevant, which seems strange to set up a system that won’t be helpful when times change (other than to say, embrace the change). It seems odd and futile to make any definitive statements when everything is relative to what is beyond the status quo. When you set yourself contrary to something, you bind yourself to the contrary. Once the heretic becomes the status quo he/she is no longer relevant and has let down his/her tribe.

I’m sure he intentionally chose the word heretic because it is an incendiary word and is divisive and so, therefore, grabs the reader’s attention and is memorable. He elevates heretics into saints. Heretics are the good people, he says, because they embrace that change is what drives the world. Heretics, as a whole, looking through history, specifically within the Church,  have rather mucked things up. Arius was a heretic, but he wasn’t bucking a system because Christology hadn’t been fully fleshed out (no pun intended). His challenge to Christ’s eternal divinity ended up solidifying Christology in the Church. His effect was apophatic and so in bucking something he unintentionally solidified what we believed about Christ. Martin Luther, who Godin mentions multiple times, originally didn’t want to be a heretic. As he moved along in his own thought, based on faulty principles (see above), did he separate himself from orthodoxy. Yes, he bucked the system, but I wouldn’t consider his heresy successful only because it started a chain reaction of great division and great confusion in Christianity. It had the opposite effect of unity, one of the universals I spoke about earlier.

Inside of this faulty system though, Godin has some keen insights in sociology, which, in turn, effect the way one can lead. To settle for current operational standards without reflection is never a good thing. To work mindlessly, following the manager blindly, doesn’t build human excellence and is an offense both to human creativity and free will. Such stati quo are unjust to the worker and need reform, need new insight, inventive ways of solving problems, free of  the complacency that maintains what works just because it does. Leaders should and need to build up and effect change that will help their sphere (tribe) excel.

Godin says leaders don’t need to be in positions of power to lead. In fact, in reflecting on many of the Church’s greatest saints, very few started in positions of power. Francis was a hermit. Catherine worked at home. John of the Cross was imprisoned. Frederick Ozanam was a college student. They all saw that different parts of the Church had entered into complacency and so led by example and word. One started a religious order that change the face of religious life in the Church. Another called out the pope in his complacency. Another reformed a complacent religious order. Another saw the need to take care of the poor in Paris and so he filled that need forming a society (St. Vincent de Paul Society) to do so. None were heretics, although at various times some might have been labelled as such. The beauty of true orthodoxy is that is allows for a wide range of expression without ever becoming heretical.

The concept of building tribes, although not new, is very well articulated by Godin. It’s important for a leader develop a group that is aligned with his/her values vis a vie then goal he/she is trying to achieve. Francis ended up starting an order of religious. It’s wasn’t his original intention, but men began to follow him in the ideal of living simply. It was the same with John of the Cross in the Discalced Carmelites and Ozanam in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They sought fill gaps in what was needed in the church and men and women followed. They didn’t seek to start a tribe, a tribe organically grew around their leadership and so they effected changed, not for the sake of change but rather because change was needed.

I’m glad I picked up this book. I bought it to reflect on a different leadership practices and Godin seem to be a contemporary leadership guru. Although I think his concepts lack necessary philosophic depth, they aim at one thing, if not directly so, human excellence.

photo taken by Marco Derksen

About Fr. Kyle

I am a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. I was born and raised right outside New Orleans. I attended Catholic school my entire educational career. By the time I graduated high school, I had two paths to choose: rockstar or priesthood. I pursued both for awhile but eventually came to the understanding God's will was priesthood and my will was rockstardom. After making that decision, to allow God's will to be mine, I needed a new way to channel my creativity. I began writing as I finished up my formation for priesthood. I still play music, but priestly ministry comes first. My bride: St. Rita of Cascia Parish in Harahan, LA.

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