The First follower theory is the concept that attracting an adherent to some kind of view or initiative is the first step toward beginning a movement that might seem unusual or out-of-step with the surrounding culture to the general population.
The first follower is considered to be as important to the development of a movement as the initiator because they make the leader’s viewpoint seem more credible. Derek Sivers introduced first follower theory at the 2010 TED (technology, entertainment, design) conference. According to Sivers, the first follower is what transforms an individual with a unique idea into a leader.
The first follower risks ridicule in the same way that the initiator does. Once a single person follows the initiative, however, it becomes less risky for others to join. Eventually, as enough people join, it becomes riskier to stay on the sidelines than to become part of the movement.
Sivers illustrated his theory with a brief video from an outdoor concert in which a single man begins to dance while others around him ignore his dancing and remain seated. The dancing man looks foolish until another man joins him. The two dancers changed the dynamic from foolish to interesting. Soon, a third man joined the first follower and the initiator. This second follower changed the dynamics again, because now two individuals became a small group. From there, it was only a matter of seconds until people were running across the field to join the dancing and the small group became a large crowd.
If you’ve learned a lot about leadership and making a movement, then let’s watch a movement happen, start to finish, in under 3 minutes, and dissect some lessons:
A leader needs the guts to stand alone and look ridiculous. But what he’s doing is so simple, it’s almost instructional. This is key. You must be easy to follow!
Now comes the first follower with a crucial role: he publicly shows everyone how to follow. Notice the leader embraces him as an equal, so it’s not about the leader anymore — it’s about them, plural. Notice he’s calling to his friends to join in.
It takes guts to be a first follower! You stand out and brave ridicule, yourself. Being a first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership. 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.
The second follower is a turning point: it’s proof the first has done well. Now it’s not a lone nut, and it’s not two nuts. Three is a crowd and a crowd is news.
A movement must be public. Make sure outsiders see more than just the leader. Everyone needs to see the followers, because new followers emulate followers — not the leader.
Now here come two more, then three more. Now we’ve got momentum. This is the tipping point! Now we’ve got a movement!
As more people jump in, it’s no longer risky. If they were on the fence before, there’s no reason not to join now. They won’t be ridiculed, they won’t stand out, and they will be part of the in-crowd, if they hurry. Over the next minute you’ll see the rest who prefer to be part of the crowd, because eventually they’d be ridiculed for not joining.
And ladies and gentlemen that is how a movement is made! Let’s recap what we learned:
If you are a version of the shirtless dancing guy, all alone, remember the importance of nurturing your first few followers as equals, making everything clearly about the movement, not you.
Be public. Be easy to follow!
But the biggest lesson here — did you catch it?
Leadership could be over-glorified.
Yes it started with the shirtless guy, and he’ll get all the credit, but you saw what really happened:
It was the first follower that transformed a lone nut into a leader.
There is no movement without the first follower.
We’re told we all need to be leaders, but that would be really ineffective.
The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow.
When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.
To read what lessons leaders must learn from the First Follower principle click here.