Have you ever been in a situation where you have done something despite your best judgement because you were following someone or a group that you believed knew better?
There is a fun YouTube video going round which got me thinking. The short clip shows how an act of spontaneity by one individual can easily get simulated and, in a very little time, spread to almost an entire crowd. In this case, the act is benign. One person is expressing joy and others join him. Had I been on that hill, I would probably have joined in. It made me smile and I left it at that. Then someone decided to circulate the same video but with a commentary – offering it as a leadership lesson:
The voice makes some interesting assertions, telling you what is happening and presenting interpretations as facts – almost like in an old fashion nature programme. I do not claim to know better, but I feel that there is value in questioning the underlying message that is put across. The voiceover emphasises that the ‘first-followers’ are leaders too and that people are more likely to be influenced by followers than by the leader. It then suggests that this how movements are formed and emphasises the importance of following.
If we accept the fact that leadership is over-rated, could we go further and question the act of following. Firstly, what may appear as following may not be. Although, the foolish mentality of people in crowds are often remarked upon, it may be good to remember that people also have a powerful ability not to follow and to tap into ‘group-intelligence’. We tend to focus much too often on times and incidents when things go wrong. Yes, there have been some tragic moments when people following blindly led to terrible consequences, but we have to remember that millions of events happen the world-over, where massive crowds gather without any incidents. Could it be that there is a non-verbal communication between humans that is more subtle – a form of invisible flow permeating the group – where no one is the leader and no one is a follower – where complex patterns prevail, like the movement in a murmuration of starlings or a shoal of fish. Human communities often change their course without anyone in particular being responsible for it. The rational mind (and historians) like to give credit to a few individuals, but I believe that any change happens for more complex reasons than first meets the eye. Before we draw conclusions on what influences people to change course, it is important to understand the context. In the video for example, it would appear that the people are on the fringe of a music festival and “having fun” may well have been one of the underlying intention for being there in the first place. It may be much cruder than a starlings display but I believe that we have the potential for group flow.
Last year, I was surrounded by people that thought highly of leadership and that believed that not only did we need trail blazers that influenced people, we also needed followers. Many people often comment on the fact that we are misled and that for the problems of the world to be solved, we need the right type of leaders. So, is following the right leaders the way forward? I would suggest that the problem may lie in the act of following.
Our current civilisation overvalues popularity. Just because a large number of people buy fizzy drinks, does not mean that it is the right beverage to drink. We look up to social, political and business leaders – even spiritual leaders – to help us out of the mess we find ourselves in. This dependency to be led – to be nudged from the outside – may, I believe, be at the source of the problem. We need to be both sensitive to what others around us perceive and be in a state of enquiry. There will always be influences and inspirations, but we must learn to think for ourselves. If someone is doing something that works, it is more than natural and intelligent to want to emulate it. But to be a follower means that one has an alignment or alliance and is prone to follow blindly.
This prompts me to my last point. Rather than lead or follow others, is it possible to listen to the experience of others, and then be guided by a mixture of reasoning and one’s own instinct. Let me give an example. Last year my partner, son and I spent a couple of days in Lovena in North Bali where one of the main attractions is to see dolphins in the wild. Once there, we encountered many fishermen and people with boats offering tours – they all said that sunrise was the best time to spot them. I was a little apprehensive, as it became clear that there would be more boats than dolphins. A friend suggested going later on in the morning with the risk of not seeing any dolphins, but when most of the boats had finished their ‘chase’. We opted for that and we were nicely rewarded with an hour and half of dolphin bliss almost on our own the whole time.
I wonder whether it is possible to go with the subtle flow of things – I don’t mean by that going with the crowd – the mainstream – on the contrary. It is not about being non-conformist either. It is about using our intuition and intelligence to develop a sensitivity to a subtle implicate order. The concept of flow fascinates me and I want to explore it further on this blog. For now, I suggest that each time you find yourself tempted to follow someone, or some ‘movement’, to pause, use your awareness and think. To listen to that little voice that I call the voice of flow. You may find that it guides you otherwise.
Is it possible to flow instead of following. Below is a little clip of how Starlings do it: