Enabling leadership through good followership

by Senior Master Sgt. Kathleen Carter
86th Operations Support Squadron superintendent

During our military careers, we are often reminded of how important it is to be a good leader. We read articles and attend seminars to help us strengthen our leadership abilities. Although I do feel that being a good leader is pertinent to everyone, I believe there is one subject that falls in the shadows of the word “leadership.”

Followership is equally important, if not more so. As an experiment to show how much followership is devalued, I did a quick Internet search for the word “leadership.” About 442 million results were made available. I then did an Internet search for the word “followership.” There were only 578,000 results. This imbalance can be a problem, because before anyone can become a good leader, they must first learn how to be a follower.

There is also a misconception of followership in the military community. Many feel we are all inherent followers because of the rank structure we must adhere to. The military rank structure does not produce followers; it produces subordinates. Yes, there is a difference. Below are a few tips I have to offer on how to set yourself apart from being a subordinate and being a good follower, as followership enables leadership.

1. Don’t be afraid to support unpopular decisions. At some point in time, we are all going to have to be the bearer of bad news. Whether it is a decision your boss made or a new policy, the word will have to be delivered to the masses. You are faced with the decision to support it, and possibly lose some cool points, or throw your boss under the bus with the infamous, “I don’t like it either, but that is how the boss wants it.” The only thing you just achieved by the latter is instilling doubt in the members under you. You may have averted being the “bad guy,” but those other members now have less loyalty to the organization, which ultimately means less loyalty to you. Even though you may not agree with the decision, if the members you are relaying the information to see that you support it, they are more inclined to follow it as well.

2. Don’t be afraid to disagree with your boss. However, disagree in private and respectfully. Don’t fall into the trap of always telling your boss what you think they want to hear. We are obligated as followers to inform our leaders of the possible consequences of their decisions and actions, even if that means disagreeing with their ideas. Not only does this protect your boss, it also protects the organization, the people and the mission from someone in charge making an uninformed decision. If your boss eventually changes their mind based on your advice, don’t see this as an opportunity to boast about it with others. By boasting, you have undermined your boss and again caused others to doubt him or her.

3. Do your homework and remain honest. Never underestimate what decisions will be made based on the information you give your boss or in what forum your words will be repeated. Also, remain honest about any shortfalls. Do not try to cover them up; eventually, they will be exposed. Make sure your boss knows all of the facts before you have him or her sign off on anything. One of the challenges as a follower is protecting our boss’ signature. Don’t lead them down the wrong road because you did not do the research or did not properly inform them of a shortfall. Lay everything out on the table and keep them informed. It is your credibility that is on the line.

Are you a subordinate or are you a follower? If your goal is to become a leader or a better leader, take a step back and evaluate how you are as a follower. I honestly believe good leaders can only come from good followers.

You must be able to display the qualities of followership before anyone will entrust you with the opportunity to display your qualities as a leader.