I ran across an older video this morning, in which Derek Sivers explains the importance of the first follower in the creation of any movement. He displays his theory through an amusing display of concert goers performing a kooky dance started by one lone shirtless man.
Coincidentally, I also read an older rant that was shared yesterday from the Evolving Jew blog, entitled, ““Gedolim”? You mean a bunch of fundamentalist fanatics?” In his blog rant, David Staum mentions that whenever anyone from Chareidi rabbinic leadership makes an outrageous pronouncement, the Modern Orthodox community is quick to apologize for their fanatical stance by saying that the godol in question probably isn’t responsibly for the proclamation. Rather, the rebbe’s followers (or askanim) are manipulating an elderly rabbi who either has no idea that others are speaking in his name or has been given faulty information that wrongly influenced his opinion.
The askanim theory is a very popular one in Modern Orthodox circles to explain away troubling trends seen in more right wing communities. Watching the video, it’s easier to understand how followers are actually more important to a movement than leadership.
For example, the first follower theory explains how a man like Lev Tahor leader, Shlomo Helbrans, was able to start his own fringe sect of Judaism. Of course it takes a charismatic and unabashed leader to start a movement, but such movements would never gain a foothold if not for the first few followers who climb aboard and subsequently recruit additional passengers.
If the first follower theory holds true, it means that the followers actually have more control and influence than the leadership of any movement or community. As such, a leader’s control is a precarious thing. For example, the lone shirtless dancer in the above example would have remained nothing more than a funny anecdote or fleeting viral Youtube sensation had no one joined his dance. He was the anomaly among a crowd of seated audience members. However, because of the first follower who encouraged more followers to participate, pretty soon any seated audience member became the anomaly. The community had spoken and dancing became the socially acceptable behavior. Those who sat out of the fun felt different and ashamed, until they too, reluctantly joined the dance.
The point is, depending on the mood of the crowd, a leader can spark a movement, or be marginalized. It’s entirely up to the crowd whether they follow or not. Additionally, the mood of followers can change on a dime. Society is fickle concerning who they follow. Whereas one leader is popular today, another might be popular tomorrow. In the end, we followers hold all of the power, yet we don’t even know it. Just because there’s music playing, it doesn’t mean we have to dance.