How to Be a Leader in a Society of Followers

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Tribes" by Seth Godin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you called to be a leader? Do you have a vision and the will to make it a reality?

Our society is churning out followers instead of leaders. We need leaders today more than ever. In Tribes, Seth Godin argues that all you need to assume leadership is attitude and ability, and all you need to be a leader is a vision and the drive to pursue it.

Keep reading to better understand whether you should rise up and be a leader.

Too Many Tribes; Not Enough Leaders

Godin contends that we need leaders today more than ever. In large part, that’s because there are currently more tribes than have ever existed before, thanks to the internet, which makes it easy to connect with others

However, the leader shortage has a societal aspect as well as a technological one. 

Acolytes and Apostates

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of people:

  1. Acolytes: Those who follow others and do as they’re told.
  2. Apostates: Those who break away from traditional teachings and beliefs.

Godin says that an acolyte, by definition, can’t be a leader; acolytes don’t create new ideas or build new tribes. Only apostates—people who push their own ideas against societal pressure—can lead real change. 

Godin clarifies that you can be an apostate on a small or large scale. For example:

  • You could have a new idea about how the company you work for should handle a daily task (small scale).
  • You could walk away from modern society and found a commune in the wilderness (large scale).

In both cases, you’re leading the charge toward a new way of doing things—and you’ll need to recruit followers to turn your ideas into reality.

Leaders Embrace Opportunity and Risk

In The Leadership Challenge, Barry Posner and James Kouzes’s Third Principle is: Challenge the Status Quo. 

They provide two guidelines to help you do so effectively: 

Search for opportunities. Good leaders aren’t afraid of change; however, the first step is to identify what needs to change. Look for areas where your tribe is stuck in a mentality of “we’ve always done it that way,” and try to envision ways to improve upon the status quo.

Experiment and take risks. Along the way to any major change, you’re going to encounter a number of small successes and failures. As a leader, make sure to celebrate the successes with your tribe—those small victories will make the larger project feel achievable. However, make sure that you also learn from the failures—each new thing that you try will give you valuable feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. 

Society Creates Acolytes

While apostates are the ones who become leaders, Godin believes that our society is designed to churn out acolytes—people who try to fit in, instead of standing out. 

Godin says there are two main ways that this happens:

  1. School: Modern education teaches us how to pass tests. In other words, we’re graded on our ability to give answers that fit in with the curriculum—deviation from the accepted answers is punished with bad grades. 
  2. Work: Companies naturally want the cheapest labor possible, and that comes from people who keep their heads down and do as they’re told.

In short, Godin argues that we’re trained from childhood to uphold and defend the status quo. 

Upending the Status Quo

Godin seems to take it for granted that people tend to keep their heads down and try their best to fit in. He explains how society creates the status quo, but not why we’re so reluctant to fight it. 

In Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins explains why we’re often scared to go against the status quo: We associate some kind of pain with making a change, so we tend to keep things as they are (basically, we prefer the devil we know to the devil we don’t). 

Therefore, according to Robbins, the trick to upending the status quo is to identify exactly what we’re afraid of—what pain we think we’ll experience if we make this change—and work to unlink that fear from the change we want to make. 

Be a Leader

Becoming a leader seems daunting; we’re often afraid to become apostates, or we think there’s some secret ingredient of leadership that we’re missing. However, Godin argues that all you need to become a leader is attitude and ability. In other words, if you believe in yourself and convince others to believe in you as well, then you’re a leader. 

Godin points out that many of us hesitate because we think that we also need authority—in other words, we think that someone else has to give us the power or the “right” to lead. However, that misses the point: If you’re following someone else’s instructions, or waiting for permission, then you’re not leading. 

Overcoming Low Self-Esteem

If you think you need someone else’s permission to be a leader, you may be suffering from low self-esteem. Norman Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking offers some advice on how to overcome self-defeating thoughts and boost your self-esteem: 

Find the root cause. Why do you feel inferior to other people? Perhaps you struggled in school, or you were constantly overshadowed by a sibling.

Embrace “confidence concepts.” When you find negative or self-deprecating thoughts creeping in, replace them with thoughts about your own competence, confidence, and the certainty that you’ll succeed in whatever you’re doing.

Imagine the best, instead of the worst. People tend to inflate problems in their minds, and envision the worst possible outcomes. Instead, try to imagine the best possible outcome, and recognize that the problems you encounter won’t be as bad as you think.

Stop underestimating yourself. Take an honest inventory of your skills and talents. Assess your abilities—then raise your assessment by 10%.

Seek professional counseling. While Peale offers many tips on how to build confidence and overcome negative thoughts, he also acknowledges that there’s no substitute for working with a professional. 

Note: The Power of Positive Thinking is heavily based on Christian faith and practices (Peale himself was a minister). However, many of the lessons within it are helpful no matter what your religion is—or if you don’t practice a religion at all. 

Be a Leader—Fearlessly

One point Godin repeatedly returns to is that, by definition, a leader is someone who goes off the beaten path (consider a common synonym for leader: trailblazer). Such people are often viewed as odd, crazy, or even heretical; however, a leader who only goes where she’s “allowed” to go isn’t a leader at all.

Therefore, in order to be a leader who makes a difference, you must be fearlessly committed to your vision. 

Godin urges us to be fearless, but doesn’t provide much concrete advice for how to overcome our fears; in this case, our fears of other people’s opinions. 

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations suggests that you overcome fears about what other people think of you by recognizing two facts:

You can’t control what other people think.
Other people’s thoughts can’t hurt you.

In short, what people think of you is neither your responsibility nor your problem. 

Aurelius also says that the best thing you can do is devote yourself completely to your duty—in this case, your duty to lead your tribe and fulfill your vision. 

Stop Holding Yourself Back

Godin says that many of us are waiting for the right time to lead; for example, when we have the right education, the right funding, or the right support. However, Godin argues that waiting never pays off. Instead, he urges you to just get started: Make that Facebook group, publish that blog, or start that workplace petition. With how easy it is to build and lead tribes in the modern world, the only thing stopping you is yourself. 

You don’t need money or education to lead, and you certainly don’t need permission. All you need to be a leader is a vision and the drive to pursue it. 

Just Start Somewhere

In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson offers similar advice for when you’re struggling with accomplishing a difficult task or making a major change: just start somewhere. You don’t need to have every step planned out, and you don’t even need to have all the necessary skills and resources; just find something you can do that will get you a step closer to your goal, and then do it. 

Manson says that there are several major benefits to approaching your problem in this way:

Reaching a small goal (even if that goal is “just do something”) will motivate you to keep working toward your larger objective.

You’ll get your mind working on the problem. Doing something—anything—is much better than staring at your problem and waiting for a fully formed solution to appear in your head. For example, say you’re trying to solve a difficult math question. If you just start to write down numbers and formulae, you may find that you actually do know the first step, and then the step after that, and so on. If not…

You’ll find out where you’re getting stuck. Continuing with the math example, you might realize that you don’t know the proper formula after all. However, now you know exactly what information you’re missing, so looking it up will be quite easy. 

You can use this same approach when you’re trying to build a tribe: Just get started. You’ll undoubtedly run into problems along the way, but—as Manson says—you’ll either find solutions to those problems, or you’ll find out exactly what your weaknesses are so that you can fix them.  

Is it time for you to be a leader?

How to Be a Leader in a Society of Followers

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Seth Godin's "Tribes" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Tribes summary :

  • What tribes are—and why we need them
  • How to create and lead a tribe effectively
  • Why we need leaders today more than ever

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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