Follow up: The key to effective leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. Joseph Turk
  • 721st Mission Support Group commander
Gen. George Patton asserted, "Commanders must remember the issuance of an order, or the devising of a plan, is only about 5 percent of the responsibility of command. The other 95 is to insure the order is carried out." Although Patton made this statement during World War II, it rings true today and applies not only to command, but to all levels of supervision. Whether you work on the flight line or in an office environment, in combat or in garrison, to be an effective leader you must follow up on your orders or taskings.

Why is following up so important? First, it gives meaning to orders or directives. If you take some of your limited time to follow up on a tasking, you must really want the job completed. Your people pick up on this and understand your words do have meaning and when you ask for something you do expect them to accomplish the task. Following through also establishes priorities for your organization. After you issue a task, how quickly you follow up and the number of times you ask for the status will show your people what you really care about, or for that matter, don't care about. "The boss asked about this three times this week - it must be important," or "Well, the boss hasn't followed up on this -- I guess it's not too important." If you don't follow through, you leave it up to your people to figure out your priorities -- this is your job as a leader, not your troops' responsibility.

I once served as a deputy branch chief on a combatant command staff. When my boss was reassigned, I became the acting branch chief and was required to attend the director's weekly staff meetings. During these meetings, he would pass out taskings left and right. You hoped he did not call your name because an unrealistic assignment usually came with it. After one particularly brutal staff meeting where my name was called four times, our deputy director called me into his office. I thought he wanted to hear our plan for accomplishing the director's taskings, so I began to explain what we would need to do and how it would impact my branch's workload. The deputy stopped me in mid-sentence -- "Joe, don't worry about getting everything done, he will never follow up. Do what you can on these taskings and forget the rest."

I walked out of the meeting in disbelief. Forget what the boss said? This was contrary to the basics I had learned early in my career -- you always do what the boss asks unless it is legally or ethically wrong. "Forget the rest?" Well, we were not going to forget the rest. We proceeded to give our best effort to accomplish the director's assignments. Although we made progress, we were not able to complete all the tasks.

During the next few staff meetings, the director called my name several more times, not to ask for the status of my previous assignments, but only to give more taskings. The deputy was right -- the director never followed up. Because he failed to follow up, his orders had become meaningless and it became our job to determine his priorities.

Don't fall into this trap. When you issue an order, mean it. Prove it to your people by following up in a timely matter. They will quickly learn your priorities and make every effort to meet them. You will eliminate confusion and your organization will move forward under your leadership. Anyone in a leadership position can issue an order, but effective leaders issue orders and follow up.