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The Fallacy of the “Fast Follower”: Why Leadership Matters

Bold Narratives
Bold Narratives
April 4, 2023
5 min read

In the late 1990s, I was a young and wide-eyed communication director at a leading public relations firm. My client was a large telecom firm – one of the big three. And I was fortunate to have a rare meeting with the CEO.

It was at this meeting, in his office, that I recommended the company pursue a thought leadership strategy aimed at positioning the telco as an Internet leader.

The CEO got up and walked across the room, looked me in the eye, and said, “Rich, being a leader is risky. You see that stock price on the wall. Stability is what our shareholders expect. Leader? No, we are a ‘fast follower’.”

It took me a while to process, but I understood now why many of our recommendations were not making it to implementation. The company viewed leadership as a risk. They wanted to take a cautious approach and let the competition own the role of visionaries or early adopters. They would follow in their footsteps once the market was proven.

Why be first to market? Why lead?

The fallacy of the fast follower suggests that caution and risk aversion are necessary for stability and predictability. And this may be true for products that are static – whose value is already determined. But dynamic and disruptive markets are apt to evolve and change by their very nature. Any market where the product changes due to technological or cultural forces respond to different rules born by customer expectations.

Telecom was no longer just about the phone. It had become transformed by market forces into a more dynamic and tumultuous category that promised connectivity, productivity, community-building, and commerce. The network was the product. And technology markets do not reward fast followers.

The company soon learned that to compete (and create value for shareholders) they had to be willing to lean into the market and lead with vision and brand integrity.

The Benefits of Leadership

By being the first to innovate, set standards, and make bold moves, you can gain numerous benefits that can help your business thrive. And if you don’t, you just may find your company competing for obsolescence in a market that has irrevocably changed.

Here are some of the key advantages of acting like a leader in the market:

  • Ability to control the agenda: When you act like a leader, you have the power to shape the conversation in your industry. You can set the tone for discussions and help influence the direction of the market.
  • Ability to set the standards: Leaders are often the ones who set the standards for their industry. By being the first to do something or by doing it better than anyone else, you can establish yourself as the benchmark against which other companies are measured.
  • Brand integrity and credibility: Leaders are typically viewed as more trustworthy and credible than their competitors. By being seen as an authority in your field, you can attract more customers and build stronger relationships with existing ones. And investors will notice.
  • Ability to make big mistakes (and be forgiven): When you're a leader, you have more leeway to make mistakes. If you take a risk and it doesn't pay off, people are more likely to forgive you because they recognize that you were trying something new and different. And they will come to your defense.
  • Ability to attract and build a strong ecosystem of partners to help communicate your story: Leaders often have a strong network of partners who can help spread the word about their brand. By cultivating these relationships, you can amplify your message and reach a wider audience. And use their money to reach your stakeholders.

The First-Mover Advantage

Despite these advantages, some companies are hesitant to make the first move because they fear the competition will be alerted. By being first to market, the competition will copy their strategy and steal their thunder.

Flashback to the telecom company at the beginning of this article.

They were eventually converted and were willing to go out first with a vision for the market and the customer, unveiling their product strategy and claiming a leadership position in the market. Soon thereafter, the competition responded with “me-too” announcements claiming that they were also pursuing the same vision. But it was too late. Our client had made the announcement loudly, and boldly and secured the first-mover advantage. Customers, partners, and investors responded in full support.

Leadership is not easy. It takes courage and a willingness to challenge the status quo. And, while fast followers may be able to replicate your innovations, they will never be able to replicate the brand integrity you create or the relationships you have built with your customers and partners. Leaders win because they are respected and trusted and build loyalty that can’t be bought with advertising or content marketing.

Becoming the leader can give your business a significant advantage. By setting the standards, controlling the agenda, and building a brand of integrity, you can establish yourself as an authority in your field and attract committed customers and partners. Because a bold and courageous story always wins.