If you want to lead, you have to put yourself out there, right? Be assertive or dominant? Take charge? Call the shots?

Not according to the Royal Marines, you don't.

To take charge, be one of us

A study by Kim Peters and S. Alexander Haslam tracked 218 Royal Marine recruits in a training program. Recruits self-assessed their association with leader and follower roles five times through the 32-week program. They also evaluated the leadership of their peers and voted on the recruit they thought had the best leadership ability. Commanders assessed the recruits in the same way.

At the end of the program, the researchers found that recruits who saw themselves as leaders also got a nod of acknowledgement from their commanders. But those recruits didn't win their peers' confidence--that is, they weren't seen within the group as somebody to truly trust and get behind, despite their leadership attitude.

People who identified and were seen by others as followers, people who didn't see themselves as taking the reins at all, were the ones who actually got the peer stamp of approval and who emerged as leaders for the team.

While the results might make your brain go wiggity-wack for a minute, they're not as counterintuitive as you might think. People want to follow others who are like them, the researchers explain. So if you really want to lead, you have to be seen as "one of us". People who aggressively try to be dominant just don't earn that label and instead are seen as outsiders, even if they have enough brawn to throw around control.

How to be the insider who leads

So what's a person like you with serious ambition to do?

Just communicate and be yourself. The more authentic you are as you reach for goals, the more you reasonably let down your guard and demonstrate real empathy with and interest in the people around you, the more people see you as their own and know they can count on you.

And people want others they can count on yielding the big stick.

Finding other leaders to propel your business

But as the researchers point out, there's one more big takeaway for leaders--you might have people with incredible leadership potential in your midst and not even see them or think to give them a chance. So when you need somebody to step up, it might help to get insights from the entire team, not just your higher-ups.

"This is a recipe for establishing ineffective leadership structures and increasing team dysfunction," the researchers assert. "Organizations that utilize democratic processes for the selection of formal leaders...may well benefit from doing so."

Published on: Mar 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.