A review of "Tribes" – Leadership by Heretic?

A member of PCW lent me his copy of Tribes a few weeks ago and I finally got through it yesterday afternoon.  It is not that it is a difficult or a long read, but I just simply hadn’t had the opportunity to sit down and work through it.

As I read the book, I was reminded of my Introduction to Church History course in seminary (bear with me a moment).  My professors told us that they would be going through the first few centuries of Christian history “by the heretics.”  This didn’t mean that they were going to necessarily teach the doctrines that eventually were considered heresies, but instead focusing on how those doctrines led the early church into clarifying its own beliefs.  The idea behind this concept is that the church has often clarified its own beliefs and understandings in response to the claims of some about different aspects of doctrine.  Early movements such as gnosticism, donatism, manicheanism, montanism, and pelagianism (google these for more information about each) helped the church clarify its understandings and beliefs about the dual nature (human/divine) of Jesus, doctrines of original sin, and several other doctrines that do not seem that controversial today.  Without the “heretics” however, the church might not have been forced to wrestle with these important topics.

All that serves as an introduction to my thoughts about Tribes.  Basically, Godin writes as a heretic himself and calls others to lead as heretics themselves.  The book itself threw me off because I tend to read books by the chapter and I found very quickly that there are no chapters at all.  No “introduction”, “presentation of the problem,” “steps to resolve,” “case studies,” and then a “conclusion.”  Instead, each of these (save maybe a specific “steps to take”) are mixed in one with another.  The book is very much written, in my view, as if one could just pick it up, turn to most any page and begin reading.  It is a very web 2.0 book in its structure.

Moving beyond the structure of the book itself, Godin focuses on how “heresy” is necessary to provide leadership in our current age.  Heresy being defined as being willing to buck the status quo, challenge the established means, and so forth.  This isn’t anything new per se in a lot of leadership materials, but Godin comes at it from the perspective that the world has changed so greatly in the digital age , yet many organizations, corporations, and even churches continue to fuction as if those changes had not taken place.  They continue to use old paradigms and “established” methodologies as ways to function in the new age.  Probably his strongest example comes in his discussion of the music industry today.  Until very recently (and some would say not even then), the music industry has continued to function as if it still lived in an age when the only ways that people would consume music is by purchasing LPs, tapes, or CDs from the store and listen to Top 40 stations on the radio.  Before accepting the reality of digital distribution (MP3s, etc), the music industry sought to litigate themselves into profitiabiltiy again instead of being willing to accept new models.  While their lawyers were fighting single mothers who downloaded 24 MP3 files, groups such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails (the most famous examples out of hundreds of others) were offering their music online in direct distrubution to fans.

Basically, Godin says that leadership in this age requires “heretics” to stand out from the crowd and seek to lead in new ways. This new way focuses on the “tribe.”  Godin defines the tribe as a core group of people passionately commited to a cause.  The cause could be something like hunger relief in Africa or Star Wars, helping to elect a new candidate to office or building model railroads.  So, how is this different?  Its different because Godin points out that in the digital age, tribes are returning because we can form affinities and mobilize people in ways that were impossible to do 30 or more years ago.  A tribe is different from an organization beacuse, in a tribe, all people have ownership in what takes place.  A tribe is not the one leader casting the vision and expecting everyone to fall lockstep into line.  A tribe is a group of people who are connected by a common cause and each member shares the passion, energy, responsibilities, leadership, and “evangelization” for the group. A tribe is deeply connected and commited.  There is no such thing as “work” for a tribe because there is great joy, excitement, and energy connected to where what one does for/with/etc the tribe is not “work.”

One might say that this is an unrealistic thing.  But look at the countless tribes that are thriving in today’s world (online and in direct relationships) and one will see that it is not unrealistic to expect.

For Godin, there are three key pieces for tribes – a common story that the tribe is commited to, strong links of communication within the tribe, and something to do.  Most organizations focus on the third before even coming close to the first two.  For a wonderful example of a tribe in action, check out the 501st Legion…They started out as a group of deeply passionate Star Wars fans and they have become a tribe that not only embraces their common story and joy of Star Wars, but have formulated an incredible web of communication with one another, and have committed themselves to action beyond just getting together to talk about Star Wars. They volunteer in the community, visit kids in the hospital, and raise money for many different charities.  They are a perfect example of what Godin is talking about.

So, what does this mean for the church?  Well, if one goes back to the Gospels and Acts, we have a picture of a Tribe in action.  We have a leader who was considered a “heretic” in the day as Jesus spoke of a new way of relating to God.  We have a group of passionately committed followers who had the common story of Jesus and his mission at their center.  We have communication between the participants in the tribe (as well as amongst the different tribes that formed from the original), and we have “things they did” based upon their common story and the links of communication.  But the church has grown from that small tribe in the first century and tribe has been replaced in many ways by organization and establishment.

There is a great deal in the current focus within the church on “missional communities” that resonates with Tribes. Missional communities focus not on the assembly line idea of church where it is about the numbers primarily, but instead on the intentional communities that we are called to foster as sisters and brothers in a common faith in Jesus Christ.  It is from these communities that we are continually interacting with the world around us as witnesses to the reality of Christ at work in the world.  There are many other resources I would highly commend to you on this subject (some are in the “Now Reading” sidebar to the right.

As I read Tribes, I found myself thinking and praying about the ways that we (local church as well as larger) can begin to move from a place of establishment thinking to tribal living.  I don’t think we have a long way to go to make that step.  I think it begins with a deep and passionate commitment to Christ, a desire to be in deep and vital relationship with others within the community of faith, and a willingness to be open to the change that the Holy Spirit breathes into us.  But it is not up to me to say what this community will look like, but instead it is up to us, the members of the tribe, to understand our common story, forge the deep, consistent, and innovative ways to connect to one another, and to live out our faith in tangible ways.

I highly recommend picking up Tribes and seeing what it says to you about the groups and organizations you ae a part of.

One thought on “A review of "Tribes" – Leadership by Heretic?

  1. Godin has some other good books–one I remember is something called “The Idea Virus” which is basically building on the hotmail idea of free. Godin is good.

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