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The importance of followership

F. E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. --

Our society embraces the pursuit of leadership.  If you want to be successful in the military, you need to be a strong leader, right? Read any performance report, and you will have the highlights of a person’s demonstrated leadership. If we are all leaders, who are we leading? Leadership is essential but so is its opposite: followership.  Our military is structured like a pyramid, with a single leader at the top and a wide base of subordinates below. Since the number of followers exceeds the number of leaders, shouldn’t there be more discussion on how to be a good follower? No matter your rank you are part of the overall foundation of our military.

The author and retired colonel Phillip Meilinger wrote an article called the “The Ten Rules of Good Followership.” Ivey Business Journal defines followership as “the ability to take direction well, to get in line behind a program, to be part of a team and to deliver on what is expected of you.” I prefer the simple take away from the quote attributed to Thomas Paine: Lead, follow or get out of the way. If we are going to participate and we aren’t in charge then we support the one who is.

Meilinger’s first rule is Don’t blame your boss for an unpopular decision or policy; your job is to support, not undermine. I will admit I have failed in abiding this rule in my career. Of course a young lieutenant knows more than senior leaders! Unfortunately a squadron commander can also fail to support leadership. I relished that my boss had made an obviously dumb decision and was only slightly restrained in letting it be known. I felt better getting it out of my system, but eventually realized that I had not only undermined my boss but myself as well. I had just demonstrated to my airmen that it is acceptable to push back against guidance and even ridicule it. Unfortunately, I soon had to deal with the ramifications when I made an unpopular decision and heard the grumblings within my unit. It was embarrassing to apologize both to my boss and to my unit for setting such a poor example.

Accept responsibility whenever it is offered. This goes against the old adage of never volunteer, but it is a great way to grow and learn something outside your career field. Some people are afraid to take chances and “risk” their reputation. If you never try anything then you never learn anything. Our military is designed for continued growth and development of the individual. If you are afraid to take a chance then maybe you should think about a different career. No one expects everything to be perfect when starting a new project. Whether it is organizing volunteer effort, running a snack bar or being the project officer for a DV visit, you will learn and grow from the experience. Additionally, if you are being offered responsibility then someone sees potential in you. You may not see it in yourself but trust their judgement.

Keep your boss informed of what’s going on in the unit: people will be reluctant to tell him or her their problems and successes. This I have seen too many times to recount. Sometimes the assumption is that the commander is all knowing and must know everything is going on. Commanders are pulled so many directions with the job that we rely on “trusted agents” to keep us informed. Without that, we miss out on providing support when required or nipping problems in the bud before the fully develop. Two examples, one on each side of the issue. I suffered a significant loss shortly after PCS’ing into a new unit. It was years later and it came up in a discussion with the commander and he was floored that it had transpired without him knowing. He was hurt that no one had brought it up to him and felt that he had failed me. On the other side, I was approached by one of my NCOs and was notified that a Staff Sgt. was dealing with a tough divorce and may be suicidal.  I had not known that there was anything happening much less a divorce.  I was able to start the conversation and assist the Airmen in getting the help he needed.

These are a few vignettes on followership and some different aspects of it. Being considered a follower and not a leader often carries negative connotations. We need to realize that being a follower is just a role and one that we experience more than a leadership role. Just as a strong leader is essential for mission success, so is a strong follower. As we take care of our Wingmen, we should expand that to include bettering our followership skills. We have all volunteered “to support and defend” and our mission is too important to fail. I challenge everyone to think more actively about followership and how well we are doing it.