When Followers Give Legitimacy To Their Leader


Didier Marlier

May 30, 2010

From Disruption to Engagement

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Duncan Sterling was the kind of student any Dean would dream of having on their M.B.A. as his sharp mind and remarks were keeping faculty on the edge and he would “take no bullshit”… I guess he hasn’t changed much! He commented on a recent post of this blog and added a clip which I am afraid many of us may have missed!

I find interesting the comments and ideas coming out of this clip: The person who provides legitimacy and credibility to the odd “weirdo” starting an improbably successful dance is the early follower… He signals to the many others that there is something worth watching and maybe following here. It seems time to pay justice to those true “heroes” who, through their courage and vision allow others to shine: Everybody will remember the first guy who danced and not the first who granted him legitimacy by joining.

This clip reminds us  of course of the popular Everett Rogers “Diffusion of Innovation” curve[1] describing how a given innovation picks up in the market place:

The true supporters to a new idea or change are not the innovators (often being suspected by the rest of being too forward looking and not sufficiently grounded) but the early adopters who have the required credibility to engage the essential early adopters who will then convince the late majority.

Too often, we invest unnecessary energy in seducing the innovators (who are highly needed, worth understanding and grooming ) or, worse on the 16% laggards who are a real black hole of negativity and cynicism. It is worth paying attention to these, as their capacity for destruction is important, but mainly to limit their potential of damage to the organization and never by hoping that they will transform into passionate advocate of the cause. Rebels, courageous challengers and innovators are sometimes wrongly labeled as laggards: nothing could be more wrong. “Challenging is a sign of engagement” as ex IMD professor (now running M.T.I.) Chris Parker likes to say. The laggards consist mainly of the legions of “victims of circumstances”, those obsessed about the past and unwilling to move, the passionarias of immobility.

Let us therefore recognize and support the wonderful “Followers-Leaders” without whom our brilliant geeks and thought provoking innovators would never find the respect and credibility for their ideas.

Thank you Duncan, thank you Derek Sivers for this updated moment of inspiration…

On my way to Singapore. Have a great week all!


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations


  1. Bob Devlin

    Thanks Dids for a great clip – I love the notion that it’s the first follower who makes the leader, and becomes a leader him or herself, attracting others. A very helpful illustration for the power of everyone leading from where they stand and the power of joining in. Have a good week in Singapore!

  2. Didier Marlier

    Thank you Bob,
    I found it excellent too. The early followers too often get ignored when they in fact are the ones legitimizing the leader… In Doha transiting to Singapore. Have a great week

  3. Dimitri Boisdet

    As long as good and interesting innovation is legitimated by these “Followers-Leaders”, fine. When those same followers legitimate what shouldn’t be, problems arise… I’m obviously stepping out of the business and technological sphere, and stepping in the social and political one saying this – and it’s worth a different article – but my point is there are as much negative things in that idea (or even more) than positive ones…
    Restricted to technology and innovation, I agree with what I’m reading here though. Innovation is a key in our societies; but don’t we forget the downside of it when it leads to exaggerated consumerism with all its consequences…

  4. marc hempel

    Raising money for our international forestry fund I feel like a lone nut 9/10 eachtime I go to present the concept to a potential investor. It’s true that it is not about us and how good we think we are, but about how well we deliver a clear message, and once they’ve understood the message, how well and quick we can bring them into our world and speak as one voice. I can assure you that the first real follower is more important than we are!!!

  5. Didier Marlier

    To Dimitri: very honoured to find one of the best columnist in “Le Monde” joining us. Thank you Dimitri. Fair point and as you intuited, the article is mainly about the fact that the followers are those giving legitimacy to a leader, be it for a worthwhile cause (Gandhi, Luther King, etc) or an evil one. Thanks for stepping in!
    To Marc: thanks Marc, excellent point. Hope to meet you again soon

  6. Niall McDonagh

    Great post and video clip, Didier. I agree that the importance of the early follower in getting new ideas off the ground is overlooked in business. Perhaps this is more for a follow-up article or post, but I also believe that the most significant challenge in building momentum behind a new idea or change, particularly if it is a disruptive one, will come slightly later in the curve.
    In his book ‘Crossing the Chasm’, which builds on the diffusion of innovation curve, Geoffrey Moore explores how ‘visionaries’ (early adopters) have different expectations and motivations from the ‘pragmatists’ (early majority) and it is the chasm between the early adopters and early majority where momentum typically either builds or dies. Although I would agree that we need to encourage and support ‘follower leaders’ to legitimise the innovations and new ideas in the first instance, I think far too many of these initiatives then fail to cross the chasm!

  7. Didier Marlier

    Excellent point Niall thank you! If you feel inspired to push the idea further, I’d be delighted to publish a post of yours. Thank you and have a safe trip to Brazil!

  8. Michael

    The way this blog is going is evidence that virtual movements follow the same pattern. Didier was the lone wierdo (and I use the word advisedly) who stood up to dance in Sep 2009, not knowing where it was going, or if it would last. A few people validated his actions early on and gave him the confidence to keep dancing.
    I’m fascinated to see how the, now global, dance evolves.


  9. Didier Marlier

    Thank you Michael, for a moving comment… These are what motivates me at the moment of writing each week!!!


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