What’s a leader without a follower

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John Yocum
  • 721st Communications Squadron commander
"He's not leadership material...he's just a follower." Have you ever heard or spoke words like that about someone before? They were assuredly meant as a put down and a sign that the person was not cut from the right cloth to serve in our military.

As part of our warrior ethos, we study leadership continuously throughout our careers and hold its virtues in the highest regard. We strive to be the most effective leaders we can be, emulating those we admire and rejecting the qualities of those we do not. We tend to attribute success to the leader of the team, and ignore the significant contributions of its followers. Let's face it, the word follower typically carries a negative connotation. However, a reality we must all face is that everyone has a boss...each and every one of us. We will always find ourselves in the role of follower, whether we like to admit it or not.

If we truly seek excellence in all we do, how can we become exceptional followers? One of the most often studied books on followership is "A Message to Garcia" by Elbert Hubbard. First published in 1899, it tells the story of Lt. Andrew Rowan's journey to Cuba during the Spanish American War to carry a communiqué to the rebel leader, Gen. Garcia, on behalf of President McKinley. According to legend, McKinley told Rowan to carry the message to Garcia without telling him where to find him or even what he looked like...and Rowan didn't ask. The book doesn't go into detail on Rowan's heroic real life journey, but instead focuses on why Rowan is an ideal follower. He did his duty without asking questions. Don't take away the wrong message here. The Air Force is not looking for blind obedience in its Airmen. The message is simply that a good and dutiful Airman does his task to the best of his or her ability, with full heart and without complaint.

Expanding on this theme, let's take a deeper look into some of the qualities that make an exceptional follower:
- Always take the initiative...and follow through. One of my operations officers years ago used to say, "If not you, then who?" His point was that if you see a problem, take the initiative and solve it. Be a self-starter and don't wait to be told what to do. You should absolutely seek guidance where warranted, but I'd much prefer a follower with a lot of thrust in need of a vector than the other way around. As important as initiative is, the follow-through is what counts.

- Always bring solutions to your boss...not just problems. The worst thing a follower can do is load their boss up with problems. This adds complexity to the decision making process, not to mention undue stress by forcing your boss to solve your problems. An exceptional follower thinks through the problem before approaching their boss and brings solutions to the fight. Your job is to take problems off your boss' back, not add to them.

- Always be honest. If you don't know, say so. Nothing is more frustrating for a leader than making a decision based on flawed information. We've all been there, your boss is asking for information and needs it quick, and you're just not sure what the answer is. Rather than giving half of the information, have the courage to say you don't know. Being honest builds credibility and trust. Of course, the next step is finding the information your boss needs immediately.

- Always support the boss. All leaders have their share of flaws. The very qualities that make a great leader (strong convictions, confidence and drive) also put them at risk for excessive ambition, failure to listen and undue risk taking. An exceptional follower will support leadership while helping their boss avoid these pitfalls. Rather than complaining about their boss or undermining their decisions (don't be a Dilbert), a great follower will demonstrate loyalty and upward coach or counsel when appropriate.

- Always take responsibility. The best follower owns the tasks they are seeking to accomplish. They do not shirk their duty or pass the blame or responsibility on to their teammates.

The next time you are studying leadership, take a moment and think about the other side of the equation, followership, and its critical role in the success of our Air Force. I also encourage you to read "A Message to Garcia." The book is easily found on the internet and is a very quick read. Besides celebrating the heroic acts of a great American, it teaches us that an exceptional follower thinks for himself, figures out what needs to be done and then does it. Remember, it's OK to be a follower.