Why Followers Make Great Leaders - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #872

Why Followers Make Great Leaders

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Photo by ketan rajput on Unsplash
Photo by ketan rajput on Unsplash


People who identify as leaders are perceived as leaders by their superiors. Peers, however, are more likely to see leadership qualities in those among them who identify as followers—because these individuals are more inclined to put the goals of the group above their own goals.


One of the dominant assumptions in leadership theory is that some people are meant to lead and others are meant to follow. This assumption is based on the belief that the mindset and behaviours of a leader—to want to take charge, to be dominant, confident, and optimistic—are completely different from the mindset and behaviours of a follower, who will be industrious, good citizens of the group and happy to let others take the lead.

This mutually exclusive assumption of leadership and followership also leads to the conclusion that people who see themselves as leaders are more likely to be seen as leaders by others, while people who see themselves as followers are more likely to be perceived as followers.

Studies have indeed shown that self-identity can play a role in one’s leadership development—that is, individuals who see themselves as leaders are more likely to emerge as leaders. However, there is little evidence, some social scientists argue, that individuals who see themselves as followers cannot emerge as leaders. One study shows, for example, that individuals can have both leadership and followership traits within them. Another study indicates that people looking for leaders will turn to those who have shown followership.

Two researchers from the University of Queensland, Prof. Kim Peters and Prof. S. Alexander Haslam, decided to test the link between self-identity, as either a leader or a follower, and eventual perceptions of leadership qualities. Peters and Haslam predicted that while those who identified as leaders could be perceived as leaders by others, those who identified as followers could also be perceived as leaders.

This second assertion was based on their belief that a followership identity would motivate individuals to put the needs and goals of the group above their own needs and goals—which, according to social identity theory, would elevate their influence in the group.

The context of the research was a 32-week training course for a group of 218 Royal Marine recruits. (Because of the rigorous course’s high attrition rate, the eventual sample would total 68 recruits.) The study measured:

  • Recruit self-identity. The Royal Marines recruits were surveyed five times during the course on whether they identified as leaders or followers. The surveys used a 7-point Likert scale (from 1 strongly disagree to 7 strongly agree) for statements such as “I think I am a natural leader” or “I think it is more important to get the job done than to get my way”.
  • Commander evaluation of recruits. The troop commanders were surveyed on their recruits’ leadership and followership —through similar statements and a Likert scale for responses—midway through the training and at the end.
  • Recruit evaluation of their peers. Finally, at the end of the training, the recruits evaluated their peers’ leadership through the vote for the Commando Medal; this vote requires recruits to rate each member of their group on whether they embody the “commando spirit”.

The results of the study showed that:

  1. Commanders were more likely to perceive as leaders recruits who identified as leaders and perceive as followers recruits who identified as followers.
  • Recruits selected as leaders individuals in their troops who identified as leaders and individuals who identified as followers.

These results confirm that identifying as a follower does not eliminate the potential for being perceived as a leader by others, but with a nuance: Who those others might be makes a difference. The difference depends on whether one’s perspective is external (as in the troop commanders) or internal (as in the peers of the recruits).  External observers are less likely to perceive leadership qualities in individuals who identify as followers.

Three reasons can explain this difference. The first is that superiors do not witness those actions by followers that reveal their commitment to the group and thus increase their influence. Second, superiors will notice individuals who identify as leaders since these individuals will deliberately seek to display their leadership abilities to them. Finally, superiors and group members may have different viewpoints on leadership. In this case, the recruits may be focused on the training context in which commitment to the group is paramount. The commanders may be looking for signs of broader leadership qualities required for a successful military career.


Whatever the underlying reasons, the perception differences between superiors and peers revealed by the study hold an important lesson for managers and leaders in organizations looking to develop potential leaders: the importance of recognizing that in some ways, superiors are outsiders who may not witness leadership behaviours that occur within the group. Because the ability to influence others is at the heart of leadership, the perception of an individual’s peers is one of the most revealing indications of future leadership potential. Incorporating peer evaluations is thus key to effective leadership assessment and leadership development processes



Kim Peter’s profile at University of Queensland

Alexander Haslam’s profile at University of Queensland


I follow, therefore I lead: A longitudinal study of leader and follower identity and leadership in the marines. Kim Peters and S. Alexander Haslam. British Journal of Psychology (November 2018).

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Idea conceived

December 9, 2023

Idea posted

Jan 2024
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