Calling All Heretics (by Clemette Haskins)

This post is written in conjunction with the “Becoming a Public Scholar” course and is directed by Dr. Monica A. Coleman.

Clemette Haskins

I begin by stating that Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us is my first introduction to author Seth Godin.  I have not read any of his other books and was not familiar with his work.  I state this to preface my next comment.  How in the world does one writing a book on leadership, primarily targeted to the business sector in 2012, draw on the 16th century’s Council of Trent with such ease?  As one who enjoys church history, I found it interesting that a marketing/business book would dig deep into Christian church history to engage the world about leadership. If you were one of those who, while learning about church history thought, “Hey, they threw out all the good stuff and labeled it heretical…moreover, that’s what I think!”, then be on notice: Godin’s Tribes is calling you out.

According to Godin, heretics are the new leaders.  Heretics, the ones who stand against the status quo because they understand “when you fall in love with the system you lose your ability to grow”; heretics, the ones who are passionate, engaged and powerful; heretics, the ones who lead by faith and not by religious dogmas; heretics, the ones who create movements; heretics, the troublemakers; heretics, the change agents; heretics, the ones who believe, like Einstein, (and Steve Jobs), that imagination is more important than knowledge.  Heretics, says Godin, are not just thorns in our side—they are the key to our success.

If you self identify as a heretic, argues Godin, you are not like most people and your tribe is not going to be full of most people – but perhaps that is exactly the point.  Whimsically, Godin ponders, “You can worry about most people all day long but I promise you they are not worried about you.  They can’t hear you, regardless of how hard you yell.” Instead, Godin suggests focusing one’s energy on using one’s passion, imagination and creativity to both communicate the idea and to create a space where one can connect with the tribe and the tribe can connect to you and with each other.

To be sure, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us is not a manual or how-to book; it is rather an impassioned call to leadership. Though short and easy to read, it is full of nuggets for aspiring leaders of change in any arena. While it is short on the cost and consequences of such leaders, Godin does provide the anatomy, principles, and key elements needed to be a leader that turns a mere crowd into a tribe. For those who feel lured and inspired to make change in the world, Tribes is a worthwhile read.

Clemette Haskins, M.Div., Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  Incarnational sacramental Eucharistic theologian.  Former Division I All America Women’s Basketball player, former Division I Women’s Basketball Coach and Le Cordon Bleu Culinary trained Chef.

  • Jennifer Gutierrez

    I also appreciated Godin’s call for heretical leadership. I generally agree with his thesis that it is the heretics that make positive change in the world. However, as you note, he doesn’t talk much about the cost of that type of leadership. Godin’s initial affirmation that society doesn’t burn heretics at the stake any more is naive and probably based in his experience as a white male. I have heard numerous stories from young women exercising their leadership, and getting burned in the process. In spite of this hole in Godin’s work, I did find it inspiring, and I’ll probably end up quoting some of his nuggets as I’m working to call out the heretic in others.

    • Clemette

      Thank you Jennifer for your highlighting women’s experiences exercising leadership and its consequences. I too think Godin was naive too those outside power structures to lead in this way. Great comments!

  • Wes

    Hi Clemette,

    Thanks for the reflection! What did you think about how the book vacillated between the two messages of creating a tribe to change the world, and creating a tribe to, forgive my crassness, make money?

    Once a heretic’s economic welfare is dependent on their tribe, won’t they be the next generation of folks fighting for the status quo?

    • Clemette

      Thanks for your response. I think in many ways your comments also speak to what Jennifer pointed out regarding the whole in Godin’s work. The cost and consequences of such leadership must be properly considered. To be sure, the leader must be willing to be free of economic security, a very difficult proposition. Also, I suppose the motivation of being a leader of a tribe would need to be carefully weighed. I think your reflection is ripe for more conversation! Thanks.

  • Hannah Heinzekehr

    Clemette – Great reflections! Thanks for sharing. I also found Godin’s definition of the heretic to be the most compelling part of his work, and the text itself was very easily quotable: there were lots of good, small nuggets within it. I think what I did not see Godin analyze adequately is what happens when you do find your tribe, and so are no longer operating as a heretic in the same way. What changes when you find a group of people who are not offended and surprised by what you say, but accept it as their communal truth of sorts?

    • Clemette

      Hannah, thanks for your insights. You make a very good point! Do you think he has another book to answer that question? :-) I suppose one would consider Godin’s direction about communication and the principles of movements and be led by such. I would be interested in having a conversation about how you think one leads once communal truths are found.

  • Elise M Edwards

    I have to admit, I didn’t find Godin’s book as compelling as many of my classmates did. I did find the concept of heretical leadership intriguing because of Godin’s distinctions between faith and dogma; commitment to systems and the status quo instead of leading the change that needs to occur, and the other points Clemette addresses above. But of course I am intrigued by a vision of leadership that promotes getting things done, launching movements and changing the world. Most leaders aspire to effectiveness.
    Yet, I am unsettled by the implication that to be this kind of leader you must focus on the tribe and not “most people.” It makes sense practically and from a marketing standpoint: Find others who are most passionate about the same thing, connect them to each other, and let the buzz surrounding it draw others in.

    But I have a theoretical problem with it: If I’m a scholar talking about an issue that has been neglected, my audience is those who do not know its importance, not those who do. I want “most people” to be aware of it, even if they don’t become passionate about it. In fact, I think my tribe may the people who need me the least. I might find great support, great resources, and new ways of thinking about the issue within my tribe and through my leadership, I’d hopefully enrich the tribe members’ engagement with the issue and provoke deeper reflection and more effective activity. But if they were already sympathetic to my cause, there isn’t much room for real transformation to take place. From Godin’s explanations, I don’t understand how leading the tribe differs significantly from our ministerial cliche of preaching to the choir.

    I also worry that this new tribalism might foster elitist sensibilities, insularity, and the formation of cliques. Separating the in-group from the unconcerned masses might ultimately hurt both. Perhaps I do not understand the true benefits of the tribe, which leads me to weigh the potential detriments too heavily.

    • Clemette

      Elise, thank you for your thoughtful response. You raise several valid points that need to be considered. Certainly you pose ideas and a good critique when considering this type of risky leadership.

  • Dylan Morrison Author

    What an interesting treatise!

    My experience of blogging and contact with other ‘heretics’ world-wide convince me that something very unusual is happening within those who claim to follow Yeshua – a great disillusionment with the religious status quo and a stepping out of the institution known as ‘church’.

    If we have the courage to let go of our historical paradigms I believe Spirit will carry the Kingdom into the most unusual places.

    I believe that the realisation that we don’t ‘own’ God’ is rapidly dawning on us – the time for religious francise is over.

  • Trina Armstrong

    Thanks for your reflection! I liked the book simply because it was short and to the point. Like others have shared, I found Godin’s definition of heretic to be compelling. While many of his tribal examples made sense to the business and blogging worlds, I paid close attention to his references to religion, faith and the church. Though he used religion and faith more broadly and church sparingly, I thought about his notion of heretic and the leaders of the mega church, prosperity gospel, and open-and affirming church movements. It seems those leaders, as heretics, are caught in a double bind if you will. I’d say the prosperity gospel, mega churches, and many open-and affirming churches and denominations are successful heretical movements that drew many followers. However, those same leaders having gone against the status quo of church as usual to create an attractive space for followers who wanted something different than church as unusual are considered heretics in a religious sense. I find this fascinating. Godin says, “change is made by people, by leaders who are proud to be called heretics because their faith is never in question.” I wonder if this is true for those leaders.