Jan 29th, 2021

Research: To Be a Good Leader, Start By Being a Good Follower


Leadership is a process that emerges from a relationship between leaders and followers. People will be more effective leaders when their behaviors indicate that they are one of us, that they share our values, concerns and experiences, and are working for us. Seen this way, perhaps the usual advice for aspiring leaders — “stand out from your peers” — is wrong. Perhaps aspiring leaders would be better served by ensuring that they are seen to be a good follower. A longitudinal study of 218 Royal Marines recruits completing an arduous 32 week training course suggests that may be the case: the Marines who saw themselves as followers, and were simply focused on getting the work done, were more likely to be recognized as leaders by both peers and commanders. But there’s a caveat: Marines who saw themselves as leaders were seen by commanders (but not by peers) as having more leadership potential. This suggests that what good leadership looks like is highly dependent on where evaluators are standing.

There is no shortage of advice for those who aspire to be effective leaders. One piece of advice may be particularly enticing: if you want to be a successful leader, ensure that you are seen as a leader and not a follower. To do this, goes the usual advice, you should seek out opportunities to lead, adopt behaviors that people associate with leaders rather than followers (e.g., dominance and confidence), and — above all else — show your exceptionalism relative to your peers.

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