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“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”— René Girard
If you don’t know where to start as a leader, start with this: imitation is the fundamental mechanism of human behavior.
20th century French philosopher René Girard was well known for his work on the mimetic theory of desire. His theory proposed that all human beings are mimetic—that copying not only the behaviors and skills of others, but the desires of others is our primary (and unconscious) strategy for learning and surviving. We are all so deeply shaped by our environment that there is no concept of the individual, but rather the “interdividual.”
The book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is an excellent summarization of the history of humankind. Read it and you’ll realize that the story of humankind is steeped in mimetic theory and further enforces the ideas of Girard’s theory of desire. According to Girard, desire is not linear, but triangular, meaning that there is always an intermediary between you and the object of desire, often in the form of social proof. We don’t value money for its intrinsic value, we value money because others value it. We don’t value a diamond for its intrinsic value, we value a diamond because others value it. We don’t value physical fitness for its intrinsic value, we value physical fitness because others value it and because science has told us that it is healthy. If obesity was universally desired, we would instantly eliminate the stress of choosing between chocolate cake and going for a run. For similar reasons, our homo sapiens ancestors traveled together, everyone wore a tunic in 1st century BC Rome, everyone wore bell-bottoms in the 1970s, and fidget spinners were all the rage in 2017.
No matter how unique you think you are, everything you think, do, and value has been informed by social acceptance. Even if you’re in the smallest minority, you have proof that your belief is accepted by some other miniscule slice of society, and that makes it okay. That makes it safe. And there’s no way around that. Evolution has made it so. And that is mimetic theory in a nutshell.
Let’s build on that idea. Derek Sivers talks about the power of the “first follower.” In many ways, the first follower may be more influential to the growth of a movement than the leader. Of course, the leader is the catalyst for the movement, but the first follower is the catalyst for its growth. The first follower may have had the same ideas as the leader (who acted on ideas learned from someone else) but didn’t want to look like a lone wolf. But now that he sees the leader taking action, it gives him social permission to follow. It then gives social permission to others to follow, and soon the lone wolf leader becomes the leader of a full-fledged movement. From the top down, the leader, the first follower, and all who join the movement thereafter, is a product of the mimetic theory of desire.
When the U.S. Capitol Building was stormed on January 6, 2021, all it took was one person in that frenzied crowd to take action on what they were all thinking but too afraid to do. When businesses were looted in cities across America during the summer of 2020, all it took was one person to take action which gave permission for dozens and hundreds of others to do the same. When I wanted my restaurant to be immaculately clean, all it took was for me to simply take out the trash, and that simple action motivated everyone to do their part in cleaning the restaurant. Objectives (good and bad) are achieved more efficiently at scale. When a group of people sees the leader take action, it gives them license to do the same. But when a group of people sees the first follower take action, the result is even more powerful because it’s proof that it’s safe to follow the leader, and it might be in their interests to do the same.
As the leader, if you want a job done the right way or if you want people to follow you, become the object of desire. Be the example you would want to follow.
Because if we’ve learned anything about leadership, it’s that all you need is that first follower, and the mimetic theory of desire will take care of the rest.
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