British Journal of Psychology Study: I follow, therefore I lead

I follow, therefore I lead: A longitudinal study of leader and follower identity and leadership in the marines

Researchers Kim Peters and Alex Haslam published a study 22 May 2018 in the British Journal of Psychology – a longitudinal study on 218 male Royal Marines recruits embarked on an elite training program. The findings — followers made better leaders.

Who decides who is a good leader – those being led, the person who identifies as a leader, or our superiors?

It has been generally acknowledged that leaders and followers are opposite identity traits:”They’re completely different ways of looking at the world. One is reactive, and the other is proactive. One is pessimistic; the other is optimistic. Where one sees a to-do list, the other sees possibilities. This distinction is preserved in most academic treatments too. So, while leadership is defined as a capacity to exert influence over others, followership is defined as a willingness to accept it.”

Contrary to popular belief and how we select leaders from the ranks, perceptions of the “exceptional” leader  don’t necessarily make a good leader. Instead, the study finds the leader and the follower are not antagonist traits, in fact quite the opposite. While commanders promoted those who they perceived and those that perceived themselves as of the leadership mindset, the study found that those who identified with the follower mind-set  had more impact on influencing group members than their leadership peers.

The study determines that our current practice for selecting leaders “is a recipe for establishing ineffective leadership structures and increasing team dysfunction. Organizations that utilize democratic processes for the selection of formal leaders (i.e., processes that tap into team member experiences of leadership within their team) may well benefit from doing so.”

Others are taking note and changing their leadership training programs. According to the West Point Military Academy, ‘We begin by teaching them to be followers’. What is encouraging about this study is that we get a deeper view of leadership. Our willingness to assume positions of responsibility and take on difficult tasks is not perhaps not a trait of exceptionalism, but our inspiration by others and our group-serving behaviors. The researchers conclude: “We found that recruits who identified as followers and who engaged in followership were more likely to be seen as leaders by their peers. Accordingly, organizations that wish to develop leadership capacity may be well served by promoting their members’ identities as followers, not just as leaders.” If we require more reframing to widen our recruitment and promotion of group-serving and motivating followership traits, the values of fellowship, collaboration, vulnerability and empathy can be included as leadership traits.

These finding re-affirm our practices in the Connection Lab workshops, ” Who decides if you are a good leader, you or your audience?”  The study reiterates that even with physical and psychological exceptionalism, you don’t decide if you are a great leader, they do. When the distinction between authority and leadership gets muddled and workplace disfunction rises, a good question to ask is how are we developing leadership in our organizations?

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