Maybe it’s because I’m the younger of two brothers and the youngest among my cousins on my dad’s side. I’ve always been the baby of the family and, as much as I might hate to admit it, I’ve likely always been treated that way too. Maybe I was spoiled. But it also meant that I had very little decision-making power in the family. I’d always be following the lead of either my parents or my brother.

Consciously or unconsciously, this outlook on the world has likely influenced many aspects of my adult life too. Even if I’m not aware of it, I oftentimes default to the position of “follower.” I look for an authority figure to tell me what to do. Maybe this is why I’m such a stickler for knowing details in advance. It’s comfortable to “know” that I don’t have to worry, that things are being taken care of.

This perspective, of course, is seriously flawed. And it became all too apparent when we went to attend a preschool information session earlier this week. This completely unexpected and unintentional social experiment illustrated that many of us default to the role of “follower” and assume that “other people” know better.

Hanging Out at the Playground

We arrived a few minutes early. As we walked past the main gate and into the outdoor play area, at least three or four other sets of parents started following us. At that point, I realized that some of them had been waiting in their cars in the parking lot. Why didn’t they get out? Because no one else did until we did.

As serendipitous as it may sound, the moment we got into the playground, a group of children exited the building. “Okay, we’ll wait until all the kids leave first,” I thought to myself. “That makes sense.” In the course of the next several minutes, more parents started to congregate in the same area in the playground as we had been standing.

Defaulting to my “follower” mindset, we all stood outside in the cold, quietly keeping to ourselves. No one got anywhere near the doors. After a few minutes of this, I decided to break from the crowd and take a peek through the door. As it turned out, the children weren’t from the preschool at all. They were a different group, coming out from a different door. I walked over to the door for the preschool and tried opening it. And, of course, it swung open.

Then, all the other parents followed me in.

I’m like that penguin on the right, indistinguishable from the others except I’m apparently taking the lead.

As we walked in through the doors and into the classroom, one of the teachers remarked, “Wow, you’re all coming at once.”

But, as we already know, that was hardly the truth. The parents arrived at the parking lot over a period of maybe 10 or 15 minutes. We just happened to all walk into the classroom at the same time, because they were all following me in at the same time.

Choosing to Lead by Example

What can we learn from this little unexpected social experiment? When faced with perceived social norms (like standing outside before being invited inside, apparently), we tend to look around at what other people are doing and copy that. Because obviously, they know what they’re doing.

Sometimes it takes one brave soul to break away from the group so they can all move forward.

We all have that friend who we think has it all together and knows exactly what he or she is doing. The truth is that we’re all a little messed up. We’re unsure. We suffer from feelings of inadequacy. We fear being ostracized or seen as weird. We don’t want to stick out.

But none of us really know what we’re doing. We just try to figure it out as we go along. We fake it. We just do it and hope for the best.

I know. Adulting is hard. I’m not entirely sure when I became an adult myself. But if we all stand around and wait for someone else to show us what to do, we’re not going to get very much done. We’re all just going to stand in the cold for no reason at all. One of us has to see if the door is open. It may as well be you. Or I guess me, in this case.

You’d be amazed at how much influence you exert over friends and strangers alike. Because everyone is always looking for a leader to follow. And confident leaders, like big brothers, make people comfortable.