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Leading by Following

Mark Cappone
December 6, 2021

I found myself revisiting the topic of followership after sharing some thoughts on managing up in a recent article. I again reflected that leadership development these days focuses on the role of the leader. However, my own leadership experiences remind me that being a good follower is just as important as being a good leader and is in fact a form of leadership.

My earliest leadership development experiences shined a light on followership that I’ve never forgotten: We all went through a seven-week capstone event as part of the Army’s officer commissioning program. Throughout this intensive event, we were rotated through leadership positions and assessed by cadre who were there to observe just how well we demonstrated basic leadership skills. While those cadre assessments were key in our final evaluation, we were also assessed by our peers who submitted a comprehensive peer review of everyone in the group. I still remember a few hushed conversations around the platoon about which of us were seen as team players, and which of us were observed to be ‘spotlight rangers’ or those who shone when in an assigned leadership position but who did little to support their comrades when in a followership role. While this was one of my first memorable followership impressions, it certainly wasn’t my last. Throughout my professional life, in a series of successively challenging organizational leadership roles, it was those who supported others that left the deepest positive impression with me.

Research supports my lifetime of observations. Research highlights the fact that we can all demonstrate leadership by being good followers, and finds that those who demonstrate good followership often emerge as leaders. While written over 40 years ago, Dr. Robert E. Kelley’s article, “In Praise of Followers,” still resonates today[i]. Amongst his findings, Dr. Kelley identified the key qualities of followers that made them effective members of any team:

  1. Self-management,
  2. Commitment to the organization and a purpose greater than themselves,
  3. Orientation for continuous personal improvement and focus in delivering results through their strengths, and
  4. Courage and honesty: Others count on them to speak up even though others may disagree with them.

Notice anything about those qualities? If you think they’re some of the same qualities that make a good leader, you’re on to Dr. Kelley’s point: The best followers realize their role as such and demonstrate leadership by performing those duties at their very best.

Similarly, the research findings of Drs. Kim Peters and Alex Haslam at the University of Queensland sounded like they had observed my Army ROTC squad 30 years ago. In their longitudinal analysis of over 200 Royal Marine recruits going through training, they found that those recruits who identified themselves as followers ultimately emerged as leaders. They found that, “…it seems that those who want to lead are well served by first endeavoring to follow.”[ii]

Perhaps then, the leadership lesson here is that we can all be better leaders by first focusing on being better followers.


[i] Kelley, R. E. (2014, August 1). In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from