Be a great follower

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Douglas Gimlich
  • Commander, 97 Medical Support Squadron
Our Air Force prides itself on developing leaders. At every level of Air Force training, we see much emphasis placed on leadership. Even at the earliest phase of professional military education, Airman Leadership School, we see leadership is its middle name. We invite leadership consultants to speak at base events, we read books on leadership, we assess our leadership annually in unit climate assessments and we send staff on temporary duty to leadership symposia. We spend a lot of time talking about leadership, but when was the last time we thought about followership?

The 80/20 rule is prolific in life, and it is no wonder that it's found in the leadership/followership dynamic too. According to R. E. Kelley's book, "The Power of Followership," leaders are responsible for 20 percent of the work, with followers doing the remaining 80 percent. Quite frankly, as a squadron commander, I find that percentage generous. So if the followers are performing more than 80 percent of our mission, what are the implications?

First and foremost, we must recognize that everyone starts off as a follower. If you think about it, anyone with a boss is a follower - even our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has a boss. Not everyone in our organization gets to be a leader every time, but they will always be a follower. It is therefore crucial that leadership focuses efforts on finding good followers, developing strong followership skills and rewarding those behaviors when identified.

Second, we must recognize and reward strong followership traits. According to Kristina G. Ricketts, University of Kentucky, successful followers tend to exhibit specific traits or qualities. These are self management, commitment, competence, focus and courage. In today's Air Force, I know of several other good followership traits which are just as important that include not arguing with your boss in public, not talking negatively about the boss to make yourself look good, doing your research before you bring an issue to your boss, not keeping secrets from your boss, being available to your boss when the unexpected occurs and being candid with your boss, preferably in private.

Third, we must understand that good followership and good leadership are both required for the chain of command to function properly. In a nutshell, every good followership trait can be seen as supporting up the chain if you look at good leadership properties, such as praising star performers in public and not shooting the messenger, that would exemplify supporting those down the chain.

Finally, we need to understand why followers follow. A leader's job is to understand why followers keep coming back. There are five common reasons why followers are willing to follow a leader. According to Kelly, these are: 1. Fear of Retribution: "If I do not follow, I may lose my job." 2. Blind Hope: "We must do something. I hope this works." 3. Faith in Leader: "What a great person. If anyone knows the answer, they do." 4. Intellectual agreement: "What a good idea; that makes real sense." and 5. Buying the vision: "What a brilliant idea. I don't care who thought of it." As leaders strive to better understand their followers, they move from reason one, hopefully all the way to reason five.

In today's Air Force, leadership skills are crucial to a successful career, but just as crucial is the ability to develop the followers under you, and to develop your own skills in following. We can all remember our favorite bosses. These were the ones that we noticed taking care of their commanders, while also taking care of their people. I, for one, cannot think of a simpler or more salient example of followership.