Distributing team leadership: a grounded theory study of how followers exercise leadership

Grant Robertson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The complex social phenomenon of leadership has been of interest for thousands of years and the subject of formal scientific research for over a century. The individual (sole) leader has been the focus of majority of the studies and leader-follower dyads have featured prominently in the identification of leader behaviours The paradigm has shifted, from the early quantitative approach to the most recent 'new leadership' perspectives which include theories such as transformational, charismatic and visionary leadership. Non-leaders (labelled followers and sometimes subordinates) have received little research attention despite being in the majority in teams. This study examined the research question, 'How do followers exercise leadership?' Approaching the question using grounded theory research methodology, leadership behaviours were studied in 48 seven- to nine-person teams of Year 11 male students attending an outdoor leadership program in one of two consecutive years in South Africa. The qualitative research was based on (1) data collected and analysed from observations in the field, including an extensive video record; (2) semi-structured interviews with course participants and staff; and (3) in-course leadership review documents. This research extends the existing theory of distributed leadership by defining and clarifying particular processes and skills of how followers in this study exercised leadership. Influence is central to leadership and also the core category in this study. In the context of the substantive field, theoretical propositions generated by the research include that team members are generally concerned about contributing and belonging and, when leading, focus on initiating or taking charge of influencing. Instead of being limited to a single leader, the leading role is distributed amongst team members, though not necessarily in equal proportion. In all teams, more than one member exercised leadership, and in most teams every member exercised some leadership behaviour during the four day program. Depending on context, followers exercised leadership by employing one or more of eight influencing behaviours and switching from following to leading roles. Communicating and listening emerged as core leadership behaviours, vital to team processes and most frequently used. Coordinating and motivating were identified as key influencing behaviours, regularly used and important to team processes. Risking, anchoring, mediating and channelling were categorised as situational influencing behaviours, used less frequently, based on context. This research articulates the mechanism whereby team members switch between leading, following and sometimes nominal member roles. Insights are provided of how individuals in a team may, for a period of time, occupy a leading role and then, at other times, occupy a following role. Occupying these roles is not related to formal assignment of roles. This study not only shows that followers play a greater role in leadership than existing literature on research indicates, but it also defines eight influencing behaviours used to exercise leadership. The study has important implications which can help managers and leaders in formal roles maximise the contributions of their followers. This study can also contribute to the design of leadership training and help build more effective teams and organisations.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2009


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