Characteristics of Youth Leadership that Influence Adolescent Peers to Follow


  • Peter J. Ward
  • Gary D. Ellis


Followership, youth leadership, youth development, peer group relationships


Who do youth choose to be their peer leaders? Despite its importance, this “followership” question is almost fully eclipsed by the study of leadership. Substantial numbers of adolescents choose to follow peer leaders who influence them to engage in illegal, immoral, and unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse, sexual behavior, and illegal acts (Havighurst, 1987; Kandel, 1985; Steinberg, 2005; Udry & Billy, 1987). Knowledge of youth characteristics that are most likely to attract followers would afford youth service professionals with opportunities to focus their energies and resources on helping youth who are likely to become leaders to lead appropriately and effectively. Thus, this study sought to identify characteristics of youth that promote peer followership. Affiliation theory and social exchange theory suggest six characteristics that may encourage followership: willingness to provide social support; willingness to enter into close friendships; opportunity for increased social status through affiliation with a popular leader; similarity of values; possibility for idealized influence; and little potential for interpersonal rivalry. Eight written messages from a hypothetical potential peer leader were presented to one hundred and eighty 12-13 year old youth who were potential followers. Each message was formatted as a letter to the youth, with each letter depicting a leader with a unique profile of attributes defined by the six characteristics (e.g., high vs. low social support). After reading each letter, participants completed a sociometric measure of preference for that leader. Statistical analysis yielded support for the theory; each of the six theory-based leader characteristics was significantly related to leader preference. The most prominent of these were social support and social status of the potential leader. Knowledge about the characteristics that attract adolescent peer followers would empower adult leaders in youth serving organizations to focus their energies and efforts on helping individuals who are likely to become leaders, thus developing leadership skills that contribute to appropriate socialization and ethical behavior of followers.?