Leaders Go First: The Surprising Impact of Making the First Move

We know that leaders go first, that’s part of the definition of being a leader.  But there’s a surprising impact that going first can have on those who follow that is more powerful than we may have thought.

A revealing study underscores the influence that those who go first can have, and I’ll share thoughts on how understanding its implications can help us become better leaders.

Leaders Go First - The Surprising Impact of Making the First Move

Alternate Universe(s)

Imagine an alternate universe.  In fact, imagine eight of them. 

Each one is identical in every respect with all the others, except for one small detail.  But that one detail changes everything.  Sounds like the start of a mind-bending science fiction movie, right?

Maybe, but it would also be a good description of what Princeton sociologist Matthew Salganik built while working on his dissertation.  He wanted to understand what influenced people to make the choices they do.  So he and his colleagues established eight small universes where all the conditions were the same except for one, to see what would happen in each.

The universe was a web site where people could listen to music.  If they liked a song, they could download it for free.  The songs and bands were unknown and from a range of musical styles.  The people were over 14,000 participants randomly directed to one of eight identical sites.

In the beginning, at each of the sites, the list of songs would appear in random order.  But as the experiment proceeded, those songs downloaded most often would move to the top of the list, with a number indicating how many times users had liked them enough to download them.

All pretty straight forward – we’ve seen this sort of thing before.  One would think that the same songs would rise to the top spots at each of the sites. 

But one would be wrong.

Who’s On First?

That’s not what happened at all.  Not even close.  Instead, each universe evolved very differently. 

For example, in one, the song “Lockdown” by 52 Metro was the number one hit.  But in another, it ranked second from last. 

And this was the case across the board.  Same starting conditions, same cross section of people with similar tastes, same songs, but vastly different results in all eight universes. Why?

It all depended on who made the first move.

Taking Shortcuts

As Jonah Berger explains in his book Invisible Influence* people tend to follow those who came before them.  With thousands of options facing us every day, from songs to listen to, things to buy, and places to go, there are too many options for us to methodically consider each of them before we decide. 

Who has that kind of time or energy?

Instead we use a short cut – we check to see what everyone else is doing.  If someone else liked something, chances are, we’ll like it too.  There are no guarantees, but the likelihood is greater that we won’t be wasting our time wading through a lot of bad options to get to a good one. 

And this tendency played out very visibly in Salganik’s experiment.  If the first person in a particular universe happened to like a certain song and downloaded it, that song’s popularity bumped it to the top of the list.  There was social proof of its popularity.

The next person, seeing that song at the top of the list, was pre-disposed to give it the benefit of the doubt when he listened to it, and was more likely to download it.  If others liked it, it must be good, right? 

As more and more users chose songs to download, the process snowballed; the first songs to be downloaded were disproportionately likely to end up on top.

This didn’t mean that any randomly selected song could make it to number one – the truly bad songs still tended to rank very low in all universes, and the better songs tended to percolate near the top.  But still, the overall variance from one site to the next was pronounced.

OK, very interesting, but what does all this have to do with leadership?

Leading in Our Own Universe

I can think of several ways this is relevant to leaders; here are some thoughts about how we might use this phenomenon to become greater influencers ourselves.

Leaders go first.  There is surprising power in going first.  Whether it’s choosing music at home, or favoring a course of action at work, the first person to voice an opinion or take action becomes the point of reference for everyone else who comes after.  Unless it is clearly a poor choice, people will tend to follow the lead of the first. 

Take Action:  If we want to influence others, we have to be ready to go first.  Whether it’s establishing ourselves as a leader in a group of strangers, or trying to steer a collaborative discussion, those who speak up early and often tend to have a greater influence than those who don’t.

Leaders go first by being willing to step forward first. Click To Tweet

Don’t believe the hype.  Salganik’s experiment also shows us that the vast disparity between something that is wildly popular and everything else isn’t simply a measure of quality.  A thousand more “likes” or downloads doesn’t necessarily mean something is exponentially better.  The gap is the result of that social short-cutting and piling on.   It’s very likely that there are other options out there that are just as good, and on a different day may have emerged as the superstar.

Take Action:  Stay alert for less popular alternatives; there are plenty of options that may be just as good, but come without the cost, the wait, or the hassle.  Understand this, and be ready to identify and lead in a different direction.  Can one company’s coffee really be that much better than another’s?

Leaders go first by questioning the hype. Click To Tweet

The deck can be stacked.  Marketers know all about this tendency of ours, and use it to their advantage.  As an example, in the world of books, as leadership and writing expert Wally Bock explains, they “crank up the hype machine for a new release.”  Leaders Go First - The Hype MachineThe moment the book comes out, launch teams blanket social media and sales sites with praise for it.  Once started, the social proof engine kicks into gear, the universe tilts in favor of the book as everyone else follows the “leaders,” and suddenly it’s another “Best Seller” whether it deserves to be or not. 

Take Action:  As Wally recommends, if we’re buying books, it’s best to wait a few months until the real reviews come out.  If it’s leading our teams, we need to be a little circumspect before jumping on the next bandwagon.  It would be wise to pause and ask ourselves (and our teams) a simple question:

Is this something that is genuinely good, or just really popular?

Leaders go first by seeking the genuinely good over the merely popular. Click To Tweet

Crowds can still be wise.  All this doesn’t refute the findings in James Surowiecki’s excellent book The Wisdom of Crowds*.  The collective judgement of a group of people can be surprisingly accurate, but only when each one doesn’t know what everyone else thought.  When they have to pioneer their own way, we negate the social short-cutting and we reap the benefit of what they truly think.

Take Action:  If we really want to tap into the brains of our teammates, using written ballots or anonymous online polls may be better than asking for a show of hands.  For brainstorming sessions, use the first 10 minutes to have teammates write down their ideas individually.  Have them turn in the ideas anonymously, then form as a group to explore the results.

Leaders go first by drawing out the best in their teammates. Click To Tweet

The experts might be wrong.  An expert’s knowledge gives him a measure of influence, but it doesn’t mean he always gets it right.  There are countless examples of this happening even when the “experts” are the ones making the first public choices.  J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by the first 12 publishers who saw it.  It took an editor’s daughter’s constant badgering to finally get him to take a second look.

Take Action:  It is always good to surround ourselves with the smartest people we can find, but nobody has absolute clairvoyance when it comes to how other people will behave.  So it’s good to not place all our faith in a single expert.   After all, it took a child to see in Rowling’s book what the expert couldn’t.

Leaders go first by questioning even the experts. Click To Tweet

Leaders Go First – The Takeaway

When leaders go first we can have a huge impact on everyone who comes after, as Salganik’s clever study ably demonstrated.  We become the point of reference that everyone else adjusts to, and we are more likely to be followed than if we were to hang back.

And there’s one other thing that going first helps us do.  When leaders go first, we have a chance to set the example. There’s no more powerful way to influence the behavior of our team than to physically demonstrate our readiness to behave that way too.

The longer we lead, the more our team begins to reflect who we are, for better or worse.  As one blogger noted, “Children act like their parents – despite all attempts to teach them good manners.” 

Leaders go first by setting the example. Click To Tweet

Leaders go first.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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