Who decides who should lead?

I follow, therefore I lead: A longitudinal study of leader and follower identity in the marines takes on the question of who decides who is a good leader? Turns out we are using the wrong criteria to choose leaders for our teams.

The military is well-known for its system of developing leadership and promoting leaders through its rank. 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.

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.” Based on this thinking a leader is someone capable of making decisions and exerting authority. While those who enjoy wielding authority are deemed to have a leadership mind-set, authority should not be confused with leadership.

Those that identified as a follower mind-set by themselves as well as their superiors were often not considered for leadership positions.   The commanders in the Royal Navy study promoted those who they perceived and those that perceived themselves of the leadership mind-set. But, at the end of the day, 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 perhaps is not a trait of exceptionalism, but the result of 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.” Our recruitment and promotion of leaders in our organization – requires a re-assessment of leadership that includes feedback from their peer groups and group-serving traits that includes values such as fellowship, collaboration, vulnerability and empathy.

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?