Leadership theories abound, and across the world public and private institutes have been established to develop tomorrow’s corporate, sport and political leaders. But what happens to a leader if nobody follows? In contrast to a focus on leadership, first follower theory considers the transformative role of the individual and in turn the team that follows the leader.
By Joanne Fahd, CA
In 1998 entrepreneur Derek Sivers created the CD Baby company. It was based on an innovative model that allowed independent musicians to retail their work online, making it an important site for emerging artists. As well as being influential it was a commercial success, becoming the largest seller of independent music online, with around $70 million in sales for 150,000 musicians.
In 2010 Sivers presented a TED talk on Starting a Movement, illustrated with a brief video clip of a man dancing
awkwardly alone at an outdoor festival, while all the crowd members around him remain seated and unsupportive.
The dancer is eventually joined by another dancer – the supportive first follower – and it is his energetic endorsement of the leading dancer and enthusiasm for drawing in others that persuades a quantity of second-wave and third-wave followers to get up and dance.
The crowd momentum shifts visibly, and by the end of the video clip, dancing has become the norm and those seated are on the periphery.
In Why The First Follower Is The Key To Innovation, Ryan Clark writes, “There is no movement without the First Follower. With each additional participant, the notion of dancing in public seems more socially acceptable to anyone watching from their lawn chairs.”[i]
For a simple – somewhat hazy – clip, much has been read into it since 2010 and the first follower concept has been applied to many undertakings, from corporate to artistic.
In discussing the concept Sivers succinctly observed, “The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader. If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire.”[ii]
Some well-known first followers
In the corporate arena some of the world’s biggest companies have been first followers rather than initial ground breakers. They followed, but ultimately made improvements that built on and in turn superseded original ideas. As pointed out in the article, What is the First Mover Advantage? Amazon was not the original online bookstore. There were other search engines before Google, “However, Google was able to customize their search engine to perform more effectively and efficiently. They now control over 65% of the search activity.” [iii]
Deloitte cites the example of ING Direct’s success. It came into the direct banking sector as a follower, but innovated products that were better for customers than those offered by the existing competition – internet-only banks and online services from traditional banks.
“To put customers at ease and spur adoption, ING Direct featured easier-to-use interfaces than those offered by competitors, helping ensure customers were comfortable with online banking. ING Direct ran a low-cost operating model by using technology to drive efficiencies through the online channel and eliminating activities with high overhead costs, like paper cheques. The bank used these measures to pay higher interest rates on savings products, which attracted many customers.”[iv]
From the perspective of educational institutions, the article Why the first follower is the key to innovation highlights that, “In education, we can get stuck in our ways. A First Follower is an essential first step toward spreading innovation around a broader community of educators. Our students are growing up in a world defined by change and our educational system is ripe for something new… We can do this together, with a ‘yes, and’ mindset and some courageous first followers.”[v]
First followers strengthen organisations
From a management perspective, diminishing resistance to change enables the organisation’s first followers to flourish. First followers are the people who will embrace an innovation, add value and support other staff through sometimes seismic shifts in practice.
The first follower’s most valuable quality above loyalty and an engaging enthusiasm is that ultimately others trust that person’s judgement.
Rather than being ineffectual actors within the organisation, first followers bring to the table several key qualities, including:
- An understanding that they are part of a team, leaving their ego at the door.
- Being open to admit when they can or can’t do something. First followers should be encouraged to bring their individual skills to the team and encourage skills in other followers that subsequently join in.
- Being generous with their time and having control over their daily activities as they relate to their own personal goals and the goals of the organisation.
- Having skills that are complementary to the owners/managers of the organisation. This way they add value by providing different perspectives that build the overall strength of the team and the organisation.
How first follower theory relates to organisational growth and success
If we apply the first follower theory to organisations, we can see that success relies on people buying into the vision of the organisation, rather than just following directions. Actions that demonstrate this philosophy include:
- Creating regular opportunities for team members to put forward ideas and opinions at meetings
- Providing team members with educational opportunities to improve their mastery of systems and encouraging them to understand how other aspects of the organisation work
- Management/Directors publicly acknowledging the role of the team within the organisation.
- Rather than being faceless cogs behind the wheel of the organisation, first
followers and other members of the team are publicly acknowledged outside the organisation through marketing and promotional channels.
In the clip, the ‘dance leader’ happily embraces the first follower and they participate in the activity on an equal footing.
The real strength of any robust organisations lies in its staff. The philosophy of first followers is not based on the leader’s ego but on a team of equals coming together with a common goal. In a business or not-for-profit environment that goal is quality work and innovations that assist customers, clients and potential donors.
Leaders must create conditions where first followers can flourish
Organisations can become stagnant when true leadership is lacking.
It makes sense that organisational leaders view their success as being directly related to creating an environment where first followers, and those that ultimately follow them, are given the freedom and encouragement to take that first step forward.
Empowering first followers is instrumental for progressing ideas, innovations and changes within an organisation to move forward, try something new and ultimately succeed.
The festival dancing video provides the perfect tool for directors and managers to articulate the strength of first followers within an organisation and to open the door to discussion, innovation and growth.
If you haven’t seen it before you can watch it here:
[i] Clark, R (2018), Why The First Follower Is The Key To Innovation, Medium, https://medium.com/innovate-624/why-the-first-follower-is-the-key-to-innovation-a424718eed00
[iii]Corporate Finance Institute, What is the First Mover Advantage? https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/knowledge/strategy/first-mover-advantage/
[iv] Srinivas et all, (2014), From follower to leader: Innovation strategies in retail financial services, Deloitte, https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/insights/industry/banking-securities/financial-services-innovation-strategies.html
[v] Clark, R (2018), Why The First Follower Is The Key To Innovation, Medium, https://medium.com/innovate-624/why-the-first-follower-is-the-key-to-innovation-a424718eed00