Leadership Research: Why People Follow Leaders

Bo Hanson
4x Olympian, Director, and Lead Consultant

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You are a Leader only if others follow

Image result for how full is your bucketAfter reading ‘How Full is Your Bucket’ by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton Ph.D., I read another of Rath’s books titled ‘Strengths Based Leadership’. An important chapter of this book is all about why people follow leaders. For so long, leadership research has focused on asking leaders what they do. But with this focus of research, there is a very obvious point overlooked: You are a Leader only if others follow you.

“So while a leader’s opinions may be interesting to study, that might not be the right unit of measurement for understanding why a person follows one leader and ignores another.”

As Warren Buffett puts it: “A leader is someone who can get things done through other people”. If you want to be a great leader, in sport or in any endeavor, then it is critical to know what the people around you need and expect from you. Why not ask them? So, that is precisely what Gallop did in their 2005-2008 study.

They Asked 10,000 Followers

In the Gallop research, their goal was to involve people across a broad spectrum of society, from corporate organizations, to social networks, schools, churches and families. It was a true random sampling of more than 10,000 ‘followers’ and was anchored around “what leader has the most positive influence in your daily life” and three words best describing what this person contributes to your daily life.

They were very deliberate with the design of the survey and the questions asked. For example they asked each person surveyed to identify a specific ‘leader’ who ‘has the most positive influence’. This way they were excluding leaders who may have a predominantly negative influence. As one leadership expert points out: “The three greatest leaders of the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin and Mao. If that is leadership, I want no part of it.”

Also, in their survey, instead of listing categories for the respondents to choose from,they were determined to let the followers define how leaders make a difference to them in their own words. This effectively removed any bias of pre-determined categories or words, such as ‘vision’ or ‘purpose’ that get most of the attention in leadership research.

What Followers Want

“Upon completion of our initial surveys, we studied the 25 most commonly mentioned words. To our surprise, many of the “usual suspects” like purpose, wisdom, humor, and humility were nowhere near the top of the list.” As their analysis continued, distinct patterns started to emerge. For example more than 1,000 people had listed the exact same word, without any prompting with categories or word options offered. Their research showed that ‘followers’ have a very clear picture of what they want and need from the most influential leaders. The followers’ four basic needs were found to be: Trust, Compassion, Stability and Hope.


Trust is the fundamental, must-have of leadership. Without trust there is no foundation to build on. Trust is often a challenge to explain in words, it is either there, or it’s not. Most theoretical definitions are based on the belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone (or something). In any position of leadership, whether that be as the sports coach, team captain, sports manager or any other field or industry professional, trust is the “do or die” foundation for leading others.

As Kofi Annan is quoted, “If you don’t have relationship, you start from zero each time.” From a sporting perspective, relationships are critical and a strong and effective relationship doesn’t exist without trust. At Athlete Assessments, we often speak about the importance of a quality coach-athlete relationship, and how this can be used to improve athlete performance. For more information on this important topic, you might value reading another related article: Behavioral Predictability for Building Trust.

From a productivity perspective, the book shows that trust also increases the speed and efficiency in getting things done. They use the comparison between two people working together on something who do not know each other, compared to two people who have already established a basic level of trust. The pair who don’t know each other have a long ‘getting to know each other’ period and it takes time for them to be able to work productively and collaboratively together. In contrast, the second pair can get things done in a fraction of the time as their trust allows them to skip the formalities and get straight to the most important aspects of their work together.

Respondents also used words such as honesty, integrity and respect as distinct contributions from the leaders in their lives. All of these words are outcomes of strong relationships built on trust.

“One of the most striking observations from our research on teams was how little successful teams talked about trust. On the contrary, the topic of trust dominated the discussions of struggling teams… Relationships flat-out trumps competence in building trust.”


Followers want their leaders to show genuine compassion for them, at least in the same way they would care about a friend or family member.

“Athletes don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

– Inspired by the words of Jim Tunney

In sport, we see the significant impact of people who show genuine care for those they work with and coach too. Often when the top performing athletes are asked about their coach, they rarely talk about their training program and rather about how their coach is a ‘father figure’ or ‘they care about me as an athlete and outside of sport’. Coach Wooden is always a phenomenal example of this in how he talked about athletics being a vehicle for the development of young men, their character, education and contribution to society. Our own 2008 research found that the top coaches care about their athletes‘ as a whole person’, more than just the number of their back. In the recent article about Coach Ric Charlesworth we quoted him saying “the interesting thing about coaching is trouble the comfortable and comfort the troubled.” Or take Lou Holtz as another example who said: “Coaching is about influencing the lives of young people. It is a role of true significance and meaning, never should it be about money. It is fundamentally about building relationships with young people.”Compassion, showing genuine care and concern for their athletes, is what great coaches do.

Another piece of research covered in the book is one that involved asking over 10 million people to respond to the statement: “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.” Their results found that people who agree with this statement:

  • Are significantly more likely to stay with their organization

  • Have much more engaged customers

  • Are substantially more productive

  • Produce more profitability for the organization.

We know this quality to be reflective of the degree to which an employee (or athlete) is engaged in their job, role and team (organization).

For similar sporting examples, you might be interested to read the article Do Your Athletes Care?



Followers want a leader who provides a solid foundation, being someone they can always count on in times of need. Follows need to know that their leaders have core values that are stable to provide an environment where they know what is expected. Those surveyed also mentioned words such as security, strength, support, and peace. Our need for stability and security plays into nearly every decision we make.

“In the workplace, while it’s critical for organizations to evolve, change, and grow over time, they must also offer employees stability and confidence. At a very basic level, employees need a paycheck, and they need to feel secure about having a job. If managers and leaders no not meet these basic needs, they are sure to face resistance. Employees who have high confidence in their company’s financial future are nine times as likely to be engaged in their jobs when compared to those who have lower confidence…”

The article mentioned earlier, Behavioral Predictability for Building Trust is a great reference for this point too. In that article, the focus is on helping coaches create more positive relationships with their athletes through behavioral predictability – behaving in a consistent manner. When coaches behave in a predictable manner, athletes feel as though they have a better understanding of their coach. This helps the athlete to know where they stand and how to most effectively work with their coach. The same can be said about building a high-performance team. Knowing how each individual team member is likely to behave in varying situations is something we have found most high-performance coaches to be extremely interested in.

Behavioral predictability is a major factor in the concept of trust (which loops back to the earlier section). Trust is largely about being able to predict a known outcome.

From a coaching perspective, it is crucial that coaches provide an environment in which their athletes feel physically and emotionally safe. Safety is a low level motivational driver. Once you remove the perception of safety, an athlete will struggle to produce a high level of performance. An example of physical safety is how an athlete’s injuries are managed and if they are treated with care and high level concern. Physical safety is also the degree to which athlete fatigue is managed, whether athletes’ concerns are listened to and if training sessions are adjusted to manage the athletes’ fatigue levels.

Emotional safety means being in an environment where you are able to act, think and feel without fear. Emotional safety is a measure of how the athletes are spoken to, treated fairly and with respect, feel cared about, praised and their self-esteem is supported and developed or not. It is demonstrated by ensuring that the emotional wellbeing of every member within and around the team is an underlying priority. Athletes must feel as though they are emotionally safe in order to perform at their best.


Hope is a higher level need which provides an interesting challenge for leaders when coupled with the previous requirement of stability. Followers want stability in the present but want hope for the future. Words such as direction, faith and guidance were also used in describing this need in their leaders.

“Instilling hope may seem like an obvious requirement for leading other people. Hope gives followers something to look forward to, and it helps them see a way through chaos and complexity. Knowing that things can and will be better in the future is a powerful motivator. When hope is absent, people lose confidence, disengage, and often feel hopeless.”

From my own experience, I’ve made a point of asking those I see who have enjoyed extreme success in their sport (and in other areas) how and when they realized they were going to succeed. The answer is consistently the same that in fact someone else believed in them first. Usually their coach, sometimes a teacher, but always someone who they trusted and believed in themselves. Hearing someone they held in esteem believed in them, forged a path for them to believe in themselves. How will you provide hope to those you work with, coach and interact with?

Leadership Legacy

“Perhaps the ultimate test of a leader is not what you are able to do in the here and now – but instead what continues to grow after you’ve gone.”

Where to from here?

In elite sport, often the most valuable, yet often overlooked skill to develop in people is leadership. However, it is well recognized that investing in the people, is the only way to create a significant difference that gives a team a real competitive edge. Leadership is not a personality trait, it is in fact a set of skills which can be taught through behavioral development and our Leading the Leaders Program. Our Athlete Leadership Program is designed to instill your athletes with a deeper level of personal understanding to equip them with the necessary leadership qualities that will help them excel as a leader not only in their sporting environment, but all facets of life.

At Athlete Assessments we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and to help you be your best. If there is anything we can do to contribute to your success, please contact us.

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In this video clip, Bo Hanson discusses the difference between coaches having their natural coaching styles and their adaptive coaching styles. He covers how coaches can utilize sport coach adaptability and adapt their behaviors to coach to the needs of the individual athletes, based on their DISC Style.

Athlete Engagement is a critical concept for all sports coaches to understand. 'Engagement' is a borrowed term from the business world. There, it is a measurement of the degree to which an employee’s heart and mind is committed to their role, leader and company. It is so important in business because engagement has a direct and significant link to profitability. Research shows engaged individuals deliver an additional 30% in discretionary effort compared to disengaged individuals.

In recent years, more attention has focused on the impact of the coach-athlete relationship on an athlete’s performance. Research from the 2008 Canadian Olympic Study showed that coach-athlete relationships significantly impact athlete performance.

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Where so many other factors in sport, across sports programs and organizations are very similar, effectively managing the ‘people side’ is what differentiates the mediocre and truly great. DISC Profiling will take your team’s performance to the next level, allowing you to get ahead and stay ahead.

Our team packages include our sport-specific DISC Assessments plus importantly, a series of consultations via video conference. Our goal is to use the information of the DISC profiles to the benefit of your program and coaching and make it as useful and practical as possible.

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