Some of the most vexing management challenges I’ve faced involve leading enduring cultural change. Anyone who has attempted to change a complacent, hostile, or defeated culture will understand the difficulty of this endeavor. I was recently treated to a viewing of Derek Sivers’ video, First Follower: Leadership Lessons from a Dancing Guy. The video illustrates the dynamics of creating a movement by showing a young man dancing away from a crowd at a concert. After a time, the dancer is joined by first one dancer and then a second. Upon seeing three people enjoying a dance, a crowd of people join in and the movement is launched. As the title of Sivers’ video suggests, the key player in any movement is not the initiator. Rather it is the first follower who must take the greatest risk and exercise the courage to follow.

Sivers makes two key points: the leader must be easy to follow and the leader must accept the first follower as a peer. The non-verbal elements of dancing clearly illustrate the movement concept. Leading in a workplace environment can be far less obvious and predictable. Before the ease of following a change can even be considered, one needs to be certain the lines of authority affected by the change and the performance incentives of the organization are supportive of the change. Either of these elements can thwart an organization’s ability to change. The ease of following a change can be broken down into how the organization perceives the change and the confidence those followers have in being able to execute the change.

The ability of followers to perceive value is closely tied to the clarity of shared goals, strategy, and system understanding. Even if an organization has a formal strategy, executives are often so pressed to create the strategy that they fail to give adequate attention to communicating the strategy. The messiest perception issue is whether the organizational values are compatible with what the individuals of the organization value and want. Organizations need to mitigate value differences as they often dilute the capability of the organization or lead to a top-down decision to replace members of the organization. Either consequence will diminish short-term results.  

Followers’ confidence in being able to perform the change is more often about trust rather than knowledge and skills. Sivers commented that the initiator needs to accept the first follower as a peer. In a business, a manager must grant followers time and attention to align expectations and collaborate on implementation. My experience is that patience is essential and that the desired change must be communicated over and over before followers will grasp the change. And most important, the manager must recognize and appreciate the courage of the first follower.

These are just some of the approaches to bringing about change. Please comment on your experiences with leading change. 

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