The Art of Followership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jarrett Purdue
  • 86th Civil Engineering Squadron
Numerous essays have been written on leadership, including many featured in this corner of the KA over the years. Much less, however, is written about followership. I firmly believe good followership to be just as important as good leadership. We are all leaders at one level or another, and we are all followers as well. When we accept and perform our roles as both leaders and followers, our team achieves far more than the sum of its parts.
To briefly cover the leadership piece: I believe a leader's job is really just to set the conditions necessary for his or her subordinates to excel. That means providing broad direction, setting goals and organizing a unit to best meet those goals. It means establishing standards of performance and discipline, and enforcing those standards. It means providing subordinates with the tools they need to do their missions, whether it's funding, equipment, training, vehicles, or proper work space. It means providing feedback to grow on and being a mentor. These principles apply to leaders at all levels - from commanders down to first-line supervisors, military and civilian.
But we all must be good followers as well. One of the more prolific writers on Air Force issues is retired Col. Phillip Meilinger. He wrote an article published in Military Review in 1994 that presents a great summation of what followership is all about. It's called "The Ten Rules of Good Followership." For brevity's sake I'll present just three of the "rules" for followers that have hit home the most in my career: show initiative, do your homework, and fix problems as they occur.
Initiative is critical in our line of work, and sets us apart from many other professional militaries in the world in that we empower our junior NCOs and officers with tremendous decision-making authority. As Airmen we believe in decentralized execution, and this isn't something you should just read about in school. This means those leaders and followers right in the line of fire must be afforded the latitude to best determine how to accomplish the mission. A leader's job is to provide his subordinates the tools they need to do their job, then let them go do it. Followers, though, can't "go do it" unless they take the initiative. There are limits to what any of us can do unilaterally, of course. The leader's job is to set and enforce those limits, but the follower's job is to get creative and do what's required - within those limits - to get the job done. We need our NCOs and junior officers to make decisions and act on issues within their functions. Without that initiative, we'll just be sitting around waiting for someone to start micromanaging, which no one wants.
The second rule of followership I like to stress is doing your homework. If you have a solution to a problem or a better way of doing things, communicate that to your leaders. This means you really need to work your proposal through first to make sure it's solid, because your boss may have to convince his boss, and maybe his boss too, that your idea is a good one. The quality of decisions made by the chain of command is only as good as the quality of information available.
The final rule, and this is related to initiative, is to fix problems wherever and whenever they occur. You have heard the adage, "bad news does not improve with age." Leaders should never get upset with someone bringing them a problem. But that is predicated on their followers doing everything in their power to fix the problem first. Bumping problems on up the line or leaving work for someone else to take care of weakens our units and gets us into jams like failing an inspection or a mission. No leader wants to hear someone say, "that's not my problem." Anything that lessens mission performance or weakens your unit is your problem. As a follower, take on those problems and fix them.
Again, I firmly believe good followership to be just as important as good leadership. Our established culture of empowered followership is what makes our military and NATO alliance partners, the most effective, influential and powerful organizations in the world today.