Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are We Focusing Too Much on Leadership?

I have recently been spending a lot of my limited free time watching various TED Talks.  According to Wikipedia, TED (an acronym that stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design) is a global set of conferences curated by the American private non-profit Sapling Foundation, formed to disseminate "ideas worth spreading."  TED Conferences have been occurring since 1990 and until recently the speeches and disucussions led by leading thinkers have been limited to the exclusive group of attendees.  Since 2006 the talks have been made available to view for free online.  There are currently over 700 TED Talks available online from speakers spanning all walks of life including Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Ballard, the founders of Google, Bill Clinton, Billy Graham, and hundreds more.  You can access the TED Talks website HERE.

The TED Talk I watched this morning was only 3 minutes long.  It was about the process of starting a movement by a man named Derek Sivers.  Before reading on, please take three minutes to watch the video:

I found the video and Mr. Sivers analysis to be fascinating.  I have always been interested in human behavior. As a sociology major at Iowa State I loved to study the way people act and interact and the reasons behind these actions.  

There are a few key observations that I took away from this video.  

Leadership (at least as it is often defined) may be over glorified.  Yes, all great change starts with a leader.  Someone has to have the courage to stand up and say "lets try something new."  It takes insight, knowledge, and bravery to lead.  But what would leadership be without any followers?  Mr. Sivers describes the importance of what he calls the "first follower."

"The first follower is what turns a lone nut into a leader." 

Mr Sivers goes on to describe the importance of being a "first follower" and how being the first follower is an under-appreciated type of leadership.  It is the first follower that makes it okay for others to join in the movement.  Consider this - have you ever seen a single person stand up and give a standing ovation?  I know I have.  Have you ever seen only 2 or 3 in the crowd stand up?  In all of my experience I have never seen such a thing.  Either only one stands up, or eventually, the entire audience joins in.  The first follower is what makes all the difference.  

Leadership has long been a buzzword in education.  We profess to want everyone to be leaders.  I have long claimed to want to cultivate leadership in both teachers and students.  We all want our children to grow up to be leaders.  Books on leadership dominate the Amazon best seller list.  

When is the last time you read a book on "followership?"  In our society we look down on the idea of being a follower.  But if we truly were a school, community, or nation full of nothing but leaders - how inefficient would that be?  One cannot lead without followers.  

According to Mr. Sivers, follower is not a bad word.  It takes a lot of courage to lead, but it takes nearly as much courage to be a first follower.  Casting your lot and joining in a movement before it becomes the "accepted" thing to do is not easy.  I would even argue in some ways it is easier to be the "shirtless dancing guy" rather than the first one to say - yeah, I am with the shirtless dancing guy and you should join us too! 

The "first follower" is extremely important for a number of reasons and leaders need to ensure they are welcoming those first followers and embracing them as equals.  As he says, future followers will emulate the first followers more than the original leader.  

Maybe we need to reexamine our definitions of leading and following.  Maybe we need to become better at, as Mr. Sivers puts it "finding the lone nut that is doing something great, and having the guts to be the first one to stand up and join in."  


1 comment:

  1. What a great post, it really got my wheels grinding. It's something I'm tussling with on a regular basis. This is one of those great 'looking at things from the other side of the mirror' pieces. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!