Leadership and Followership in Military Interprofessional Health Care Teams

Erin S. Barry, Karlen S. Bader-Larsen, Holly S. Meyer, Steven J. Durning, Lara Varpio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Introduction: The U.S. Military has long been aware of the vital role effective leaders play in high-functioning teams. Recently, attention has also been paid to the role of followers in team success. However, despite these investigations, the leader-follower dynamic in military interprofessional health care teams (MIHTs) has yet to be studied. Although interprofessional health care teams have become a topic of increasing importance in the civilian literature, investigations of MIHTs have yet to inform that body of work. To address this gap, our research team set out to study MIHTs, specifically focusing on the ways in which team leaders and followers collaborate in MIHTs. We asked what qualities of leadership and followership support MIHT collaboration? Materials and Methods: This study was conducted using semi-structured interviews within a grounded theory methodology. Participants were purposefully sampled, representing military health care professionals who had experience working within or leading one or many MIHTs. Thirty interviews were conducted with participants representing a broad range of military health care providers and health care specialties (i.e., 11 different health professions), ranks (i.e., officers and enlisted military members), and branches of the U.S. Military (i.e., Army, Navy, and Air Force). Data were collected and analyzed in iterative cycles until thematic saturation was achieved. The subsets of data for leadership and followership were further analyzed separately, and the overlap and alignment across these two datasets were analyzed. Results: The insights and themes developed for leadership and followership had significant overlap. Therefore, we present the study's key findings following the two central themes that participants expressed, and we include the perspectives from both leader and follower viewpoints to illustrate each premise. These themes are as follows: (1) a unique collaborative dynamic emerges when team members commit to a shared mission and a shared sense of responsibility to achieve that mission; and (2) embracing and encouraging both leader and follower roles can benefit MIHT collaboration. Conclusions: This study focused on ways in which team leaders and followers on MIHTs collaborate. Findings focused on qualities of leadership and followership that support MIHT's collaboration and found that MIHTs have a commitment to a shared mission and a shared sense of responsibility to achieve that mission. From this foundational position of collective responsibility to achieve a common goal, MIHTs develop ways of collaborating that enable leaders and followers to excel to include (1) understanding your role and the roles of others; (2) mutual respect; (3) flexibility; and (4) emotional safety. The study data suggest that MIHT members work along a continuum of leadership and followership, which may shift at any moment. Military interprofessional health care teams members are advised to be adaptive to these shared roles and contextual changes. We recommend that all members of MIHTs acquire leadership and followership training to enhance team performance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-15
Number of pages9
JournalMilitary Medicine
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2021
Externally publishedYes


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