Followership makes for good leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. Grant L. Izzi
  • 22nd Maintenance Group commander
Ducemus…we lead! Our recent successes in our Nuclear Operations Readiness Inspection and Unit Compliance Inspection, with deployments and exercises are a testament to individual leadership and the leadership training Airmen received at every stage in their career. For a great team like ours to pull it all together when it counts most, it requires an element of leadership not often talked about: followership.

There is no doubt that Airmen in the Air Force do a great job teaching and practicing leadership, but we can’t forget one of the most important criteria of a being a good leader, being a good follower.

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a group of senior noncommissioned officer promotees at their professional development symposium. I asked them how much time was spent discussing leadership. As you can guess, they spent most of their entire week together discussing leadership and leadership qualities. I then asked how much time was spent discussing followership and to my surprise, the auditorium fell silent.

As a young NCO, I can remember being taught about “dynamic followership,” but if you crack open the Airman handbook now, you will only find about one-and-a-half pages on followership. On page 253, you will find the following list of important followership qualities: organizational understanding, decision making, communication skills, commitment, problem solving, integrity, adaptability, self-employment, courage and credibility. These are all good qualities, but they are also qualities that make up good leadership. So, what is the difference?

Let me give you a couple examples of followership pitfalls to avoid that will help answer that question. Keep the previously mentioned qualities in mind, as you’ll see some again as you read on.

There are two common followership pitfalls that I see Airmen make.

First, have you ever heard someone say, “The boss said we have to do it” or “I don’t make up the rules, I’m just doing what I’m told?” I hear this a lot. I remember once a few years ago, I mentioned to one of my SNCOs that his shop needed to tighten up on haircuts. About a hour after I gave that SNCO the opportunity to exercise some good leadership and followership skills, one of his Airmen came to me and pointed out how he was now in compliance. Instead of accepting responsibility and showing courage as this young Airman’s leader, he had told his Airman “the boss” wanted him to get a haircut. Unfortunately, when we pass up the opportunity to take ownership in doing the right thing, we not only lose credibility with our superiors, but we also lose it with our Airmen as well.

The second pitfall I see is related to communicating and adapting to priorities. Have you ever been frustrated with having to support an idea or task that seems relatively unimportant to you, or goes against what you think is the right course of action? Sometimes I see frustration and lack of understanding cause a certain level of resentment toward a particular task, individual or organization. If unchecked, this often leads to degradation in the quality of work or timeliness required to support the issue at hand. It is important to always try to understand the big picture organizational priorities and think in terms of what is best for the greater good, not just your particular work center.

As followers, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions if we need clarification. As leaders, we should never assume our Airmen automatically understand the big picture.

As a frustrated lieutenant, I remember the advice I was given from a great supervisor and ultimately a life-long friend. He said, “Always remember that you should understand, support and prioritize tasks in terms of what is best for the Air Force first, then command, wing, unit, and finally, yourself.”

As you continue to hone your outstanding leadership skills, don’t forget to commit yourself to being a good follower as well. Practice your followership skills, have the courage to stand up for what is right, and set your priorities based on what is important to the team as a whole.

We are A/R!