Leading from the bottom – Seth Godin’s Tribes
I just finished the new Seth Godin book, Tribes. The book talks about the idea that humans like to cluster around ideas, and they like to have someone to follow, and that a great leader is a facilitator, who helps connect the members of a community and fosters communication.
When I was telling my friend about the book, she asked me why she should read it? This book applies to everyone. Not just entrepreneurs and social networking mavens. Because it talks about creating change and leadership. One of the most useful subjects he touches on in this book, is leading in the workplace, especially the concept of leading from the bottom. Whether you work in a 5 person startup or in a 100,000 person megacorp.
Seth tells a great story about how in his youth, he couldn’t get approval from his boss to work on a particular project that he was very interested in. So he did it in his spare time, and he started an internal newsletter about it. As people became aware of what he was doing, and became interested, they donated their spare time to help out, and soon enough most of the project team had defected to Seth’s project (in their own spare time, of course), until the management realized the power of this new idea and made it official. Creating a newsletter
helped create a tribe around this project, and helped Seth become a leader and create the change he wanted.
Yesterday, Seth and Robert Scoble, who became famous first as an internal blogger at Microsoft, had a great livecast about Tribes. Scoble mentioned how he had created change at Microsoft by creating a place for thought and conversation for people in the company internally. At Microsoft. A mega giant corporation. Who would have thought one man could influence change in upper management, from the bottom? The reason it worked, is that Scoble wasn’t acting alone. By creating a place for like-minded individuals to gather and talk, he started conversations, internally, externally, everywhere. Conversations that led to change.
Seth and Scoble both talked about how the increase in communication capabilities on the Internet and within companies creates a flattening of hierarchy that makes leaders out of everyone. You just have to seize the opportunity. What does it mean to lead? To create internal change, to reach out to your customers, to create communities you’re passionate about, both within the company and outside it. One thing Seth said during the podcast was really powerful, so I’ve transcribed the quote here. It’s important enough to be in bold.
Ultimately everyone is self employed. Ultimately, you cannot say, oh I work at General Motors I’ll just do what the boss says and everything will be fine. If you think you work at a company that will not let you lead, I think you’re wrong, and I think that you are hiding, but it’s possible that you’re right. If it turns out that you are right, you should leave. And the best way to find out if you’re right is to lead and see what they do. [...] To work at a place where you are afraid to stand up and lead in any way is an incredible waste. You will never get better at what you do, you will never extract value from what you do, you will merely be a replaceable cog in the machine. [...] You have to decide, before the week is over. I don’t care what the economy is like — the kind of person who can lead, who desires to lead, who insists on leading, will always be able to find a great job.
The bit that Seth really drives home is that no one is preventing you from being a leader. If you work in an organization that you think would frown upon you leading, whether it means talking to your customers and creating passionate tribes there, or even informally leading groups within your own company to create change, you are probably wrong. To give a small example, think about so many old school megabrands who are just completely stuck right now. They don’t know how to embrace communities, how to build tribes. They are used to old school unidirectional marketing. They don’t get that traditional advertising is not working. They don’t know how to create conversations.
But it’s not that these companies lack talent and knowledge. That talent and knowledge just happens to be locked up in what’s likely to be the lowest tier of the company workforce – the smart, new media savvy crowd, coming straight out of college, having grown up on the Internet, YouTube, microbrands, and the Long Tail of everything. Given no official power to create change, these people need to lead from the bottom to create internal tribes that can create the change the organization needs to create passionate external tribes.
Speaking of the Long Tail, it dawns on me that what Seth is talking about in his book is the Long Tail of Leadership. A leader isn’t just the head of a country, organization, or team. As communication increases, hierarchies flatten, employees and customers can talk directly, niche communities are created around the most obscure interests, leaders of all shapes and sizes must rise up to facilitate the tribes that form. In their podcast, Seth and Scoble both emphasize that leaders aren’t special, they are every day people who rise up to become facilitators of their tribes.
The Tribes Q&A document is a free resource that is a great accompaniment to the book. It’s written by members of Seth Godin’s own tribe, from their personal experiences with leadership. It’s a great lesson and an illustration of the very point of Tribal leadership itself.