If you haven’t watched National Lampoon’s 1978 masterpiece Animal House in a while, it may be time to break out the VHS tapes and grab some popcorn. It is laced with famous scenes and features many budding actors that went on to highly successful acting careers. If you are one of those Millennials who wants to get some insight into the culture that influenced your grandparents’ generation, it’s worth figuring out how to stream this classic. If nothing else it is worth watching Blutowski’s inspiring “Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” speech.

This great film came to mind recently as I listened to a senior executive talking about the many changes he was trying to implement across his organization.  He had some great ideas about the direction his firm needed to go, and his energy and enthusiasm for the future was infectious. His audience was inspired and hopeful and the much-needed changes were long overdue.

But soon after the CEO left, the mid-level managers began evaluating the CEO’s proposals. “That will never happen, the VPs won’t implement that,” said one. “There are too many policies and too much institutional momentum for any of that to stick,” said another. “Unless you get rid of the old guard up there, none of this is going to get anywhere,” said a third. They all agreed that the CEO’s proposed changes were necessary, but none of them believed they would ever happen.

Having listened to the CEO’s ideas on multiple occasions, I had to agree that they were great, positive, necessary changes, and that the institution was unlikely to get behind them despite the CEO’s inspirational rhetoric. It struck me as being so similar to Blutowski’s speech that I mentioned it to the CEO. At first he didn’t see the connection.

In case you didn’t watch the clip, Delta House had just been kicked out of school, and Bluto, played by John Belushi, tries to rally the team to fight back. He gives it a go, and finishes with a rousing “Who’s with me? Let’s go!” and runs out into the hallway expecting the guys to get up and follow him.

Nobody moves.

Bluto returns to the room and shames the group. “Ooh, we’re afraid to go with you, Bluto, we might get in trouble.” He continues his rant, which seems to be falling on deaf ears until Otter jumps in. Soon after, D-Day and Boon stand up and join in. Suddenly the rest of the Deltas get up and start following the leaders out the door. Since this a National Lampoon film it just gets crazy from there.

The point of this connection between the CEO and Animal House is that the CEO is at the stage where he is out in the hallway with nobody behind him. He has a great point, he has people’s interest, but nobody is in the hall with him. He is leading, but (so far) nobody seems to be following. Oh, sure, they say they are behind him. They agree with what he is saying. They make nominal efforts to look like they are supporting the CEO’s new direction, but their hearts aren’t in it. They are looking at each other wondering what the safest thing to do might be. In the meantime, they just keep doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” The old ways, after all, are safe.

So how might the CEO get things going? How is he supposed to create momentum for change? How does he get others to follow him into the hallway? I think any change in an organization depends largely on three key characters: the Leader, the Old Guard, and the First Follower.

The Leader has the onus of creating the vision, allocating resources, and mobilizing support for change. The vision has to be simple enough for everyone to clearly understand, and it has to seem relevant to those who are going to pursue it. Assuming that is done right, the Leader must then deal with the other two key players.

The Old Guard are those senior folks and their followers who resist change at every chance. These leaders made their careers on the old ways, and any change to them is a threat to their power or ego. This isn’t a new phenomenon. The sixteenth century political scientist Niccolo Machiavelli tells us that the biggest opponents of change are those that profited most from the old system. That seems true.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain of success than to take a lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovation has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under new.
– Niccolo Machiavelli

The CEO has a choice what to do with the Old Guard: he can win them over, or he can get rid of them. Of course that is easier said than done, but it is the key to instituting lasting change. If the Old Guard remains in place, they will chip away at the new vision over time until the CEO finds himself back at the place he started, with the Old Guard wielding even more power now that they’ve undermined the boss.

The other key player here is the First Follower. In Animal House, Otter (the beat-up guy who is the first to support Bluto) is the First Follower, and is the key to mobilizing the rest of the team. Without Otter’s support, Bluto isn’t going to get anywhere. Without a First Follower, the Leader is stuck with some good ideas, a rousing speech, and probably (if he works for the government) some first-rate PowerPoint slides.

Of course having a single follower isn’t enough, but it is the essential start. Without a First Follower you won’t get a second or third. Embracing the first one leads to more, like Boon and D-Day, the next two Deltas to follow Bluto and Otter. These guys were the tipping point for the whole movement. Once you get a few people moving, momentum can pick up and things start happening.

Leaders must find, recruit, and foster first and second followers if they are to successfully implement change. (Btw there is a brilliant YouTube video about how some movements get started that is worth 3 minutes of your time.)

I think that many leaders get the first part right. They develop a vision, gather resources, assign tasks, and move out. Most even think about the opposition, and make moves to neutralize them. But how many leaders take their followers for granted? How many assume that once the vision is out there and the plan is set that everyone will start moving in the new direction? I think it is hard for leaders to see when their subordinates are slow-rolling or paying lip-service to the new vision. It’s difficult to see where fake followers are quietly undermining implementation of the new vision. It’s hard to tell when the momentum is shifting in the new direction, or when it is just shy of the tipping point and losing traction.

Leaders must figure out how to gauge success and failure in leading change. What are the indicators that the vision is sticking? What are the signs that this is working? How do we know that we have the followers getting up off the couch and running into the hallway with us?

Failure to figure out the signs that your followers are lukewarm will spell the end of your vision. You can say all the right things (Germans? Forget it, he’s rolling) but unless you have Otter, D-Day and Boon as committed followers, you’ll be in the hall all by yourself, and your vision will be no more than a good idea.

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