Developing the skills of followership

  • Published
  • By Col. Jennifer Moore
  • 21st Operations Group commander
Regardless of how long you've been in the military, you've been exposed to ideas and theories of leadership. It's a favorite subject of scholars, executives and military professionals. Leadership has been taught, debated, touted, challenged, applauded and cursed. It's been wrapped up in neat little packages and given catchy names to make it marketable. If you Google "leadership," you'll get 496 million hits. Search for "leadership" online at and you'll be rewarded with more than 78,000 titles to choose from. Try to encapsulate the essence of leadership by finding just the right quote and you'll have more than 39 million pages of leadership quotes to peruse. But now do this: try the same thing with "followership." Interestingly enough, "followership" merits a mere 434,000 Google hits and a paltry 204 titles on Amazon. It would seem everyone wants to be a leader, but what's a leader without good followers?

Followership is an often overlooked and underexplored concept, particularly when you consider that each of us have bosses to whom we report and who depend on us as able followers to accomplish the mission. Webster defines followership as "the capacity or willingness to follow a leader." There's no doubt we as military professionals have the willingness to follow our leaders. Submitting ourselves to the leadership and direction of our superiors is part and parcel of the profession we each have chosen. We express our willingness to follow in the oaths we take and in our strict adherence to the chain of command. The real crux of followership then is our capacity to be good followers and execute our leaders' guidance and intent. So what does it really mean to have the capacity to be a good follower?

When you think of what it really means to be a follower, you may be tempted to imagine blind commitment to do whatever you're told. You know the well-worn statements of someone "following the crowd" or "a sheep following the herd." Those images couldn't be farther from the true essence of followership. Instead, there are three key things a follower must do in order to be effective.

First, good followers listen and ask questions in order to understand their boss' intent. They focus on capturing the details of the task at hand and try to put their tasks in the larger context of the challenges the boss and the organization face. How many times have you walked out of a meeting and compared notes with others only to find out that each of you came away with a different understanding of what was said? Do yourself and your boss a favor and ask questions to make sure you fully grasp your boss' expectations. As Col. Crawford has told us all, one of the most important keys to a successful career in the Air Force is to "do what your boss asks you to do." You can't do that if you don't understand his or her direction.

Once you understand what the boss wants, good followers move out and take ownership of the task. You will not always agree with the final way ahead, but good followers appreciate when the decision has been made and focus on getting the job done rather than spending time and energy resisting or driving a different direction. Instead, strive to find a way to make the effort a success. Give every task your very best knowing that the work you do not only reflects on you, but it reflects on the entire organization.

Finally, good followers provide precious feedback to the boss and speak up when they have critical information. Don't fall into the trap believing the boss knows everything or that everyone else knows what you know. Added to that, keep your boss informed on your progress, your challenges and your plans. If your boss knows you're on track with the task at hand, you'll be given more and more freedom to make the effort a resounding success.

Being a good follower sounds easy, right? In actuality, followership, like leadership, is as much art as science. The concept isn't difficult, but the application requires hard work, dedication and a commitment to excellence for yourself and the leader you serve. While there are many attributes to being a good follower, focus on these three as a great starting point: listen to your boss and ask questions to understand your task, give your very best to do what you're asked to do, and keep the boss informed of your progress. With those key points in hand, there's no limit to the good you can do! Dominate!