… in which we explore the nature of leadership, the nature of cynicism and the crossroads where these two paths meet. You may or may not be getting to the ‘yada yada yada’ stage with video clips that make points about this, that and the other. If you are, pick another blog posting now and spare yourself. If you’re feeling more tolerant, trying watching this:

And then have a read of a TED Conference 3-minute speech Derek Sivers wrote based around the clip. Your inner cynic may be thinking several things at this point:

  • Given enough alcohol in daylight, some people will dance to anything …
  • Hang on a minute, that might be about ‘creating a movement’ (if that’s the point you were looking to make, and a bigger budget video shoot was out of the question), but from halfway through, everyone’s ignoring ‘the leader’. Ergo, he’s not a leader, just a catalyst …
  • In the words of one commentor at YouTube: “Funny how the lone guy was being followed by someone with a video camera before there was even a first follower…..yet the cameraman didn’t seem to be drawn any closer to the event that seemingly messmerised [sic] others watching into participating- oh hell! FAKE”
  • Did anyone else see “The Wave” – much harder to give an elevator pitch about at TED perhaps, but interesting (one of the other thoughts I had watching the clip was that TED has become one of the latest round of ‘unquestionably cool/good’ entities of our era, and I couldn’t help when the critical rebound might start. Of course, it already has – here, here and here, amongst other places)

Less cynically, the range of interpretations – between the brickbats – on YouTube was interesting. In looking for lessons in a piece of entertaining video footage, the upbeat vagueness (to commandeer one of the recurrent TED criticisms, if you’ll forgive my lack of pioneering originality …) potentially defeats itself in the face of the competing metaphors that have occurred to the audience:

The people piling in is a metaphor for those making money from artists not artists making money in new and wacky ways those days are gone.”

Have you heard of the experiment where a lone person in a room immediately left the room when a colored gas was pumped in the room through the vent, but when it was a group in the rooms, they stood around and discussed the possible causes, what they should do etc?”

Excellent analysis of what members of the audiences do during concerts ie social inhibitions and sheep effect …”

Sure enough, the Arab Spring, Stalin, Hitler, Sarah Palin and Glenn Buck all crop up. (Yada, etc.) As an audience to the video – rather than the ‘lone nut’ dancer – it seems we divide into two groups: those that punch the air, shout ‘Yeah!’ and join in the groove (possibly those that think maverick wacky leaders are a Good Thing, or just that Leadership per se is a Good Thing), and those that sit back a little, scratch our heads and ask questions. It also seems to me that the lone nut got a higher percentage of his audience joining in – I’m a member of my own second group here, so I’m hesitant to say ‘following’ – than Derek Sivers. (Sorry Derek.) And our shirtless hero is surely a catalyst here, not a leader? Nothing wrong with catalysts passing through – our lives might benefit from many more of them, but our organisations are not structured around such a peripatetic approach.

No disrespect to Mr Sivers (originally a musician and subsequently founder – and later seller – of CD Baby): as his explanation of why he sold his company to charity shows, he’s certainly not afraid of having a few utopian ideas in public, with his mouth open and a microphone in front of it. (Nor short of the connections to make it to the TED platform, obviously, despite some ‘history‘ with Steve Jobs.) And yet, and yet …

Yes, he’s right that there aren’t any true leaders without followers: following in any meaningful sense has to be a chosen path. And yes, leadership – which is a label quite often applied to things that are plainly not leadership – is over-glorified. (Although that isn’t helped by using the word oneself quite so often.) But it would be nice – damn the torpedoes, Cynthia, it would be healthy – to see an influential figure encouraging following that is done with a little more thought, scrutiny and feedback. It’s not 1974 anymore, and I don’t want someone dancing shirtless in a field as a metaphor for my career arc. It’s too easy – as some of the commentors at YouTube pointed out – for the charismatic or manipulative to become undeservingly successful as ‘leaders’: we can all Google the rhetorical tricks of the trade and then deploy them across social media.

And yes, there are lone nuts out there being ignored wholesale when their leftfield thoughts have value (see our post about Norio Ohga and Sony and Les Paul for more on organisational responses), but would inspiring us to scrutinise who we ‘follow’ a little more carefully be such a bad idea. Embracing the outcast requires a little social courage, but asking a few questions of a stranger takes guts too: And a movement doesn’t stop needing leadership once it’s underway – even if nuts can be replaced or superseded.

If movements are the new leadership and following is how a movement is granted legitimacy, is a little scepticism really too old school to be cool? And, to introduce a moment of pure, cold, dead logic, we can’t all be followers. Sure, we don’t all need to be leaders – it’s that orchestra versus jazz band conundrum – but some of us will still need to be the next lone nuts.

In 15 years time, TED will probably be a fascinating digital archaeological site (like Howard Rheingold’s Electric Minds – in its creator’s words, still available “If you want to see what the future of the Web looked like in 1996”), and we may all be watching blogs on VR specs in our moonpods – who knows. We can’t predict anyone’s future, but we will remain interesting in our own, and where our potential leaders might take it. While we’re waiting for our moment, we will be looking for leaders who inspire us, despite our potential cynicism, to go with a movement that has a direction we want to follow.

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