Seth Godin on Leadership for the 21st Century 75

seth godin on leadership

Seth Godin is the entrepreneurial icon of the digital age, and everything he touches turns to dollars and traffic. His first entrepreneurial venture attracted a $20 million investment within a year. Then he began preaching a concept the rest of the marketing fraternity had missed in the smog of Google ranking mania: that your target market won’t hear you unless you treat it with respect.

Godin’s permission marketing concepts overcame the black hat hype of the search engine optimization (SEO) era irrevocably.

Once he’d sold his first business and grabbed a cool $30 million from Yahoo, he got a few marketing years under his belt and launched one of the web’s most visited sites. He’s still known for changing the way marketers think about their industry, but If his ability to understand business was behind his success, Forbes would have changed an entire field merely by doing what it has always done: produce insights.

Seth Godin is not a marketer, a blogger, or an entrepreneur. He’s not even a teacher, even if he does have some pretty respectable online courses. He certainly wears all those hats, but his career has set him apart from such meagre pursuits because Seth Godin is a leader.

If you meet him, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that he doesn’t parrot Harvard Business Review jargon. Here, there will be no “circling back” or “shifting paradigms.” He won’t ballpark anything, net it out or right size it. He doesn’t recite Gallup studies about employee engagement; he “gets people to do what [he] wants them to do.” He doesn’t strategize; he “makes a difference.” He doesn’t teach. He goes “over there” with people who also want to go “over there.” If you’re looking for MBA propaganda, you won’t find it here.

This is not where best practices are leveraged, but where culture is changed. If you want to achieve the sparkling revenue of Godinesque entrepreneurship, you’re going to have to do the work instead of studying the text.

Related: 21 of the Best Leadership Podcasts You’ll Want to Listen To Now

Seth Godin’s perspective is as refreshing as champagne air, particularly if you’ve never bought a button down shirt or sat in a Stanford Graduate School lecture hall. His go-to-hell presence in Harvard Business Review in amongst all the jargon-fuelled boots on the ground signals one thing: you can become an entrepreneurial titan without a Master’s degree, and Godin will show you how.

What Management Wants to be When It Grows Up

Seth Godin is changing the world by casting management aside as a poorly fitting garment. During the interview with Change Creator Magazine, he said:

“culture eats strategy for breakfast. Management is about authority. […] It’s about getting people to do what you need them to do.” Leadership, on the other hand, is “about exploration. […] It’s about getting people to want to do what you need them to do.”

He doesn’t label such autocratic pursuits as irrelevant. He knows they’re necessary, but there’s no shortage of them. Leaders aren’t as easy to come by, so creating them can send a tectonic force through the business world and beyond it.

Godin’s insistence on stiff ethics leaks into all of his work, even as it relates to his marketing approach. Here is a business mogul who thinks you need to truly see your customers if you’re to reach them. Here is a Stanford graduate who values trust over mass customization. Here is an MBA holder who thinks caring is more important than ranking. Leadership and originality are mutually inclusive, and Seth Godin is an original thinker if nothing else. Just don’t say he thinks outside the box because this particular lesson eats HBR verbiage for breakfast, too.

“Today […] you can buy something with one click shopping that gets shipped to you by Fedex from a place in China that you’re never going to go for 7 cents less than you can get it somewhere else. Well, we don’t need you to be better at manufacturing. We’ve got that covered. The mindset going forward, and what the culture is realising, is that businesses have so much leverage, we have so much freedom, we have so much power that it ought to come with some responsibility, and the responsibility is to make a difference and do work that you’re proud of.”

The Corporate Imposter

It’s time to resurrect old-fashioned principles in the social impact space. Godin thinks leadership should transform lives, but to do that, young entrepreneurs must combat their inherent imposter syndromes. He meets the challenge by acknowledging that everyone is an imposter. Whether you’re manufacturing, selling, or marketing, you must face uncertainty. You can click through reams of analytics and projections, but business leadership will never be evidence-based.

“It’s not like you’re a physicist who says force is always going to equal mass times velocity. We’re asserting. We’re not proving, and we have to get comfortable saying, ‘You know what? This might not work.’ And the idea that this might not work frees us up to do important work. The reason that litigation lawyers and SEO experts get stuck is because they want […] a guarantee. You don’t get [that] when you’re making a difference. You’re not a manager. You’re a leader.”

Empathy and the Entrepreneurial Giant

Seth Godin’s business leadership philosophy begins with happiness instead of proof because there can be no opportunity cost for that. Do what you want to do. Do what fills your soul. Change lives—but do so with empathy for those you serve.

The capacity to walk in others’ shoes makes marketplace transactions possible. It helps you to find out what your customers value, who they are, and how you’re hoping to change them. “Who can you connect? Who can you lead? What can you make better? How can you do it again?” Anyone can answer those questions, even you in the back row with the shabby high school diploma.

Teaching the Lessons

Seth Godin’s online courses are as original as all his ideals. His Skillshare and Udemy seminars have no lectures, tests, or homework. “We are proudly not accredited,” he says. “And if you ask, ‘will this be in the test?’ we will make a face at you.”

He wants his students to move away from book learning because it encourages them to do as little as they can get away with. Instead, his courses consist of about 14 projects that race through achievements at a neck breaking speed.

“We’re trying to do art, and if you’re making art, it’s not ‘how little can I do?’ It’s ‘how much can I do?’”

That work is underlined by production, mutual engagement, and feedback. Traditional online courses have an average completion rate of 5 percent in comparison to Godin’s 97 percent, because his doesn’t promise any special knowledge. He offers experience.

“You become what you do so let’s do this.”

Related: Seth Godin Marketing: Are You Building Something Average or Magical?

In keeping with his permission marketing ideals, his seminars earn enrolment through leadership. In three sentences, he tells his students, “I wanna go over there. Do you see what it’s like over there? Do you wanna go over there with me? […] Here’s a change in our posture, a change in the world I’d like to make. Do you wanna help me make that change?” Instead of offering schooling, he offers a culture-shift that ends in the opportunity to affect your own change. He’s taking the fear out of entrepreneurship, and that’s as honorable a task as any.

Using Culture to Overcome Business School Propaganda

Godin asks entrepreneurial hopefuls to find fellow travellers who can help them to explore the places that they fear. He wants his cohorts to overcome the intimidating lessons of Stanford and Harvard Business School. Such courses teach two important practices: to ignore sunk costs and understand the math of a decision tree. These aren’t skills people are born with. It’s inherently human to focus on one outcome and ignore all the rest, so decision making is a skill that must be learned.

That doesn’t make it impossibly complicated. You simply identify what’s important based on the ecosystem you’ve chosen as your marketplace, and then explore the unknown territory that terrifies you. Culture will inform your choices, and connection will produce more rewards than didactic management strategies ever will.

Finding Entrepreneurial Success

Seth Godin has written 10 books, produced one of Time Magazine’s favorite blogs, and created two wildly successful online businesses.

When asked what he does every day to make such an impact, he replies, “I do one thing every day. […] Most people don’t.” He compares his approach to a skate park. Some kids repeat the same trick over and over, while others try new tricks that make them nervous—not to learn, but because it makes them happy. “I decided a long time ago to do things that make me nervous. […] I made it a habit that I enjoy, and that’s how I spend my day.”

“I think it’s way easier than people believe. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you shouldn’t try to raise money, you should not have an original idea. If you begin with those two things in mind, the next step is, “What’s the smallest viable market you can serve?” [Then] find one person who’ll exchange money for what you can do for them. [Then] tomorrow can you find two people? [Then] you do it again. I started this when I was 14 and […] then I did it throughout college. That’s what it means to be an old school entrepreneur. At some point, you’ll be good enough at exchanging money for value that you say to yourself, ‘There’s another way I could add value that no one’s done before.’ That’s it. […] And if you want to make a profit while doing it, you can, but that doesn’t have to be your goal.”

Seth Godin found resounding success by choosing a figurative country he wanted to explore. Then he went there and explored it. Along the way, he changed the world, and so can you.

Or, check out our full interview with Seth Godin here.

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Kirsten Holmes is a Cape Town-based features writer and poet. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine, Change Creator, Marie Claire, and other publications. She has also been published in academic journals locally and in the UK.

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