We can all agree that there is no shortage of advice for those who aspire to be effective leaders. However, there is one piece of advice that 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 behaviours that people associate with leaders rather than followers (e.g., dominance and confidence), and — above all else — show your exceptionalism relative to your peers.
But there is a setback. It is not just that there is limited evidence that leaders really are exceptional individuals. More importantly, it is that by seeking to demonstrate their exceptionalism, aspiring leaders may jeopardise their very ability to lead.
Leaders are only ever as effective as their ability to engage followers. Without followership, leadership is nothing. The key to success in leadership lies in the collective “we,” not the individual “I.”
In other words, leadership is a process that emerges from a relationship between leaders and followers who are bound together by their understanding that they are members of the same social group.
Instead of seeking to stand out from their peers, they may be better served by ensuring that they are seen to be a good follower — as someone who is willing to work within the group and on its behalf.
In short, leaders need to be seen as “one of us” (not “one of them”) and as “doing it for us” (not only for themselves or, worse, for “them”).
A recent study published by Harvard Business was done among 218 male Royal Marines recruits who embarked on the elite training program. The main goal is to examine whether the capacity for recruits to be seen as displaying leadership by their peers was associated with their tendency to see themselves as natural leaders (with the skills and abilities to lead) or as followers (who were more concerned with getting things done than getting their own way).
It is found that recruits who considered themselves to be natural leaders were not able to convince their peers that this was the case. Instead, it was the recruits who saw themselves (and were seen by commanders) as followers who ultimately emerged as leaders. In other words, it seems that those who want to lead are well served by first endeavouring to follow.
Interestingly, it was found that recruits who saw themselves as natural leaders were seen by their commanders as having more leadership potential than recruits who saw themselves as followers. This suggests that what good leadership looks like is highly dependent on where evaluators are standing.
Evaluators who are situated within the group, and able to personally experience the capacity of group members to influence one another, appear to recognise the leadership of those who see themselves as followers.
This latter pattern helps to explain why the people who are chosen as leaders by independent selection panels often fail to deliver. It also has the potential to complicate the picture for aspiring leaders. In organisations that avoid democratic processes in their selection of leaders, employees who are seen as leaders (by themselves and by those who have the power to raise them up) may be more likely to be appointed to leadership positions that those who see themselves as followers.
Those who seek to distance themselves from their group may actually be a recipe for failure, not success. It encourages leaders to fall in love with their own image and to place themselves above and apart from followers. And that is the best way to get followers to fall out of love with the leader. Not only will this then weaken the leader’s capacity to lead but, it will also decrease followers’ willingness to follow.