This morning I heard from my daughter. A word from her always lifts the day out of the ordinary! Sometimes it’s an update on the grandchildren; sometimes it’s an invitation for a birthday celebration or other event. Today, however, it had to do with work.

She suggested I might enjoy watching a YouTube video on first followers, entitled leadership from a dancing guy. Have you got three minutes? Then take a look! I can give you the Bill-Hooke guarantee: It won’t be the worst use of time that you make today. Go ahead. Give it a shot.

The point of the video is that for leaders to make a difference, they need followers, and most especially, they need that first follower. That first follower’s influence is transformative. By the simple act of following, he or she transforms the leader from a nutcase into someone respectable, and the leader’s cause from a chasing of the wind into a worthwhile purpose.

The video’s example is a remarkably simple one, and the case compelling. However, we see the same notions at work in the more complex fabric of our working lives, in the business world, and in the affairs of nations, don’t we?

We even see this in the world of research. I’ve written several times in these posts about NOAA’s Wave Propagation Laboratory, where I worked throughout the 1970’s and into the 80’s. That laboratory had a strong international reputation in ground-based remote-sensing: in theory, technique development, application, and technology transfer. We innovated, but that innovation was emphasized most in our optical propagation program. Our greatest strength was our high degree of awareness of success worldwide. We learned how to recognize the potential of other’s ideas for solving practical real-world problems. We were an early-adopter of those ideas, and proficient at bringing them to full flower. We did this to good effect in meteorological radar, microwave radiometry, acoustic remote-sensing, and other areas, taking much of this work from theoretical notion to operational reality – in the service line offices of NOAA, in DoD, the FAA, and many other federal agencies. Some of our work even found its way into the commercial sector.

In a very real sense, we were first followers.

Why mention this today, here? The reason is simple. There are a lot of good ideas floating around on the peripheries – and in the interstices – of human affairs that merit a larger following. Let’s look close to home…at our own realm of the real world as resource, victim, and threat. We see every day in the papers and other media evidence that knowledge exists, but isn’t being used; that politicians and scientists have chosen to fall into warring camps versus find common ground, that it’s easier to cluck our tongues at the world’s dysfunction than to take a small, local action.

But we also see, from this same vantage point, bridgers, negotiators, translators who are trying to span the divide between science and society. We see peacemakers who are urging a more reasoned dialog among those of varying opinions in the world of politics and the world of science. Think of Climate Central, bloggers like Andy Revkin, Roger Pielke, Jr., Judith Curry, and others. Do you agree with everything they say, all the time? Maybe not, maybe not any more than the first-follower of the video clip agreed with the leader on every dance move. But do you generally support the contributions they’re making to the dialog? Well then, you can help them along as well. Instead of just watching, get up and join the dance. Add a comment or two to the dialog. Remember, colloquy is better than soliloquy.

And closer to home, we see the American Meteorological Society, reaching beyond its comfort zone of technical journals and meetings to improve the application of its science and supporting technologies for societal benefit in dozens of ways. They and thousands of other non-governmental organizations and faith-based organizations are laboring in obscurity and in penury to benefit society. You and I can support them!

Chances are good if you’ve read this far, you’re already a first follower, giving credence and muscle to many such efforts. Good on you! Kudos! Keep it up. And continue to be ever more strategic and thoughtful as you do this. Emphasize bringing along that second- and third- follower. For this follow-ship is really leadership of a type as well, isn’t it?

The video states that while everyone may remember of celebrate the leader, there are few rewards for the first follower. But you and I know better, don’t we? First, we know that any “benefits” for being a visible leader are really illusory. Fame? Its flip-side is notoriety. Praise? It comes with criticism. Influence? It brings along jealousy and worse. Second, we know that the leader will always remember and be grateful for our follow-ship, whether he or she acknowledges it expressly or not. And third, we have the greatest satisfaction of all, the only one that no one can take from us…our own knowledge of the gift we gave and the role we played.

My daughter has a background in child psychology. It seems to be working in her profession, as well as on her children (and maybe even her dad!). One of the maxims she and her brethren follow? Instead of a steady stream of criticism, wait for your child to accidentally or deliberately do the right thing. Then seize the opportunity! Heap on the praise! Affirm! Be supportive!

The next time you see someone who’s modeling behavior you admire, follow him or her a bit. Model that behavior yourself. Draw attention to it, and to the leader! Kick-start that process of going viral. Be the tipping point.

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One Response to First-followers!

  1. Pingback: Some reflections on leadership… | Living on the Real World

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