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Contemplation #1: First Follower’s Indispensability2 min read


What if I said that to effect any change, any movement, any revolution, there is someone as indispensable as the Leader? Derek Sivers proposed in his TED Talk that in a push for change, the first follower is that indispensable entity without whom movements cannot occur. I first came across this concept in Professor’s North’s ‘Leadership in Organizations’ class and was taken aback at how obvious and underappreciated this phenomenon was.

“If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire… Leadership is over-glorified.” – Derek Sivers

The first follower brings legitimacy to a leader’s idea. Without him, nobody cares about the idea, nobody cares about the leader. When he stays, it proves that the idea is executable, sustainable and that starts to bring traction. Many people join in a movement, not because of its spearhead, but because of the followers surrounding them. The first follower brings in the momentum; the leader herself is dependent on him. Slowly, as the momentum builds, we start seeing a crowd behind her.


In April of 2014, John H. Miller and Scott E. Page described the Standing Ovation Model to sketch out a complex adaptive social system that brings out the variations in human learning, heterogeneity, incentives and networks. This models the problem of how every audience member decides for herself on whether to stand after a show. People, many a times, do not just stand because they thought the performance was marvelous but because they have to strategize their moves based on what others are doing around them. Ultimately, the paper develops a computational model on standing ovations. Invariably, it highlights the indispensability of the first follower. If nobody stands after the one person stood up, he will sit down but if the optimal number of people in strategic places stand up, within a few seconds, there is a standing ovation roaring across the halls.


We can observe people using this across our daily lives: the first celebrity endorsement for a product, the first worker who devotes herself to the grand idea of the C.E.O., the first rebels in a revolution, the firsts who float out online sales coupons that we grab like lunatics, companies chasing sock puppet marketing, even scammers inadvertently use this phenomenon to scale up their fraud. The list goes on and on.

“The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader.” – Derek Sivers

Now knowing all this, the next time you try to effect change in your company, treat the first few people who believe in you as your equals, your absolute necessities. And the next time you look down upon a follower, remember, there would not have been any movement without him.

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