The Power of the First Follower | December 2, 2011

The Power of the First Follower | December 2, 2011

The Power of the First Follower

Today I am going to talk briefly about following in the context of leading. As you may remember from my first Bench Talk, I am going to be asking you in your advisee groups to come up with a definition of leadership. This talk about being a first follower is intended to spark your thought process. By the end of the year, I hope we can define what we mean by leadership at Morristown-Beard School.

In general, we think of following as a bad thing. Certainly following is a bad thing when it goes against what you know to be good and right. However, being the first follower in a movement that is based on courage and integrity is something to admire. At the NYC school that I mentioned last month, the one where the poetry workshop went awry, they needed a leader and a first follower. They needed a leader to begin a movement against a moment that was hurtful to many people and then a first follower to join her or him.

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn affords us examples of both kinds of following—good following and bad following. Throughout the book, Huck is faced with opportunities to follow the adult models that surround him. Unfortunately, most of these adult role models are corrupt and dictated by meanness, fear, greed, and hypocrisy. For Huck, following these adult role models often involves hurting other people.

What amuses us in this book is that Huck believes when he refuses to follow the adults around him, he will go to hell. Huck believes that to do as society tells him is "good" and to do what he wants to do is "bad." As readers, we know that each time Huck risks "going to hell" he is actually acting with courage, nobility and goodness. But because he lives in the world where many people are doing the opposite from what he is doing, he believes himself to be bad.

We admire Huck when at various points in the novel he decides not to follow society's rules. In these moments, usually his good heart wins out over his socialized conscience. Until nearly the end of the novel, Huck has our admiration, and he does what we perceive to be the "right" thing. Even though he believes he will go to hell, Huck protects Jim, the runaway slave, and we as readers applaud Huck's love and courage.

Sadly, towards the end of the book, Huck offers an example of following, which we condemn. Close to the end of the book, Jim the runaway slave is captured and imprisoned, and Huck desperately wants to free Jim who has become a father to him. Yet, in one of the most troubling episodes of the book, Huck assumes his former role as a follower of Tom Sawyer. Tom turns the process of saving Jim's life into a child's game, and Huck follows along. In doing this, Tom shows that he cares more about his own entertainment than Jim's life, and by accompanying Tom in his escapades, Huck betrays his friendship with Jim.

In this scene, we as readers struggle deeply with our feelings about Huck. How could he do this? Throughout the novel, we had tremendously admired Huck's ability to follow his heart, to act out of love and kindness, and in this scene he goes against everything he has fought for in his friendship with Jim. Huck's willingness to follow Tom at the end of the novel makes no sense. In fact, this change of heart has baffled readers for decades. The Huck in this episode does not seem to fit with the Huck we see everywhere else in the book.

So how does Huckleberry Finn apply to you?

As you go through this year, I ask you to pay attention to whom you are following and to recognize moments where you can catalyze a positive movement. You have all been in those situations where something is happening that you know is wrong or at the very least, not quite right. These moments happen every day and can be as small as a moment of insensitivity in the lunchroom or as large as an intentionally hurtful action against someone in the community – we have examples of these moments every day if we pay attention or watch the news.

Hopefully, you might hear a lone voice that stands up for what is good and right. That is the moment where you step in and join that voice. That single voice cannot do it alone. That person who is going against the grain can look strange or can be ostracized because they are going against accepted or tolerated behavior, but the first follower changes everything. The first follower can validate that strange lone voice and make it into a voice of what is right. You live in a society where sometimes—not all the time-- common integrity is made to look like courage, and I ask you to have that common integrity, that courage to support a positive movement, by being a first follower.

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