The art of 'followership'

  • Published
  • By Thomas Thiele
  • 28th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department
In both the military and civilian environment, organizations succeed or fail not only on how their leaders lead, but also on how their leaders follow.

The line between flourishing or floundering is often very thin, and organizations that foster good leader and follower interaction will ultimately push past that line and reach the highest goals.

When there’s a crisis, when an organization fails or commits some misconduct, everyone points the finger at the leaders. People question how it could’ve happened and why no one said anything.

Followers have the responsibility to speak up. The organization, if it wishes to be successful, has an equal obligation to create the environment for them to safely do so.

So what makes a good follower? One of the most important characteristics might be a willingness to tell the truth, no matter how unpopular it might be. In a military environment of growing complexity, leaders are increasingly dependent on their subordinates for truthful information. When you have followers who tell the truth and leaders who are willing to listen, your organization has an unbeatable combination.

Organizations that encourage thoughtful dissent gain much more than those that do not. In the military environment, there’s a very thin line between insubordination and tactful dissent. There’s both a time and a place to bring forth your questions regarding policies or procedures sent from your leaders.

So what’s in it for the follower? A good follower will have to put his record on the line in the course of speaking up, but consider the price he pays for silence. Failure of an operation or ultimately the mission will have an enormous impact on the follower, leader and the organization.

No one person leads all the time; even the loftiest of leaders spend a portion of their day following. For example, a squadron commander may fill the role of the holding authority when dealing with squadron members, but not when dealing with the base commander. In turn, the base commander who refuses to respond to others will soon earn the ire of those appointed at the major command level, and so on.

Everyone at some point or another will be affected by followership, be it good or bad. For that reason, each of us must strive to bolster our own followership skills, as well as foster others.

The success of your organization depends on the actions of followers and not solely the action of the leaders. It’s your responsibility to ensure you foster an environment of productive following and leading. Educating people to help them become productive followers and leaders is an important responsibility.

It’s a follower’s obligation to share his best counsel with the person in charge. Silence, not dissent, is the one answer that leaders should refuse to accept.

A thoughtful leader should have three priorities in mind at all times: Accomplish the mission, take care of your people and create more leaders.

Your job as a leader is to train your replacements, and your job as a follower is to enable the leader to accomplish their job with sound and wise decisions. There may be repercussions dealt to the follower that speaks up and questions the company line, but the benefits outweigh the risks. And, in what may be the ultimate irony, the follower who’s willing to speak out shows precisely the kind of initiative that leaders are made of.