Followership ...The Other Art of Leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David Short
  • 51st Maintenance Squadron commander
Whether you are just starting out your career or have been in the Air Force for more than 20 years, we are all exposed to leadership and what makes a great or poor leader. We learn a lot about leadership through professional military education, reading and observation. But one area where we lack a fundamental focus is the area of leadership called followership.

Followership can be defined as, "the practice of doing what other people suggest, rather than taking the lead." You will rarely find books that discuss followership in depth. This topic is more of a chapter set aside in leadership books or short articles. But the lack of books on the topic should not prevent us from learning to be great followers. During my brief time in the Air Force, I have concluded that how we are as followers will define how we are as leaders.

I offer a few things to consider about followership that will serve you well as you practice leadership.

1. Carpe Diem (seize the day/moment)
- Even though in the true translation, carpe diem means to "seize the day," this saying has morphed into "seize the moment." The "moment" is the time or place that a leader is looking for someone to pick up a tasking or idea and step up to provide solutions or resolution to a challenge that is facing that leader or organization. When we step up and volunteer to take on that challenge, we show that we are not afraid of taking risk, and our intent is to improve or overcome whatever obstacle might be in the way. Organizations, whether military or civilian, cannot continue to grow or evolve unless someone is willing to step up and take some risks. Keep in mind, there is a fine line at times between taking initiative for mission accomplishment and being a loose cannon.

2. Truthful decisions and solid recommendations - As we progress and develop as leaders, we in turn move up the organizational structure. Unfortunately, as this happens, leaders have less time to get into the details of what is going on and will rely on followers to figure out those details and provide solid recommendations. It is the follower who bears the responsibility to get into the details and to find the truth. Once we determine what the task is and what we believe the results should be, we are normally asked by our leadership to provide recommendations. Most of the time, this is where a solid follower will succeed. A majority of leaders like to have options. Most of the time they are presented with more than one, but there are times when there is truly only one option. Whatever recommendation you approach your boss with, just remember that chances are you will be responsible for some, if not all, of the implementation once the decision is made. So you need to remember, do I have all the facts I can possibly gather, and can I provide a solid recommendation that will solve the problem and make the organization better?

3. Be a problem solver - General George C. Marshall stated, "There is no limit to the amount of good that people can do if they do not care who gets the credit." Being in the military, most of us are striving for something better or greater than ourselves. I believe that a vast majority of people do not wake up in the morning hoping to fail or create problems. All too often when a bad situation is developing, human nature dictates that we will fade into the background or shake our heads and say, "That is not my problem." Even though a problem may not be directly yours, you can engage and help solve the problem. There will be times when helping find a resolution will take time away from other things you could be doing, but I guarantee it will be noticed, and you will be rewarded in ways you never imagined. Just remember to do your job professionally and confidently, and trust that your fellow Airmen will do the same. If you come across a problem, take care of it. We are in this together.

Whatever your rank and responsibilities may be, you are a follower who is developing into a leader. It is never too late to become a better follower, because tomorrow you will be a better leader.