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July Chief's Concerns

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ed Bruce, 245th Air Traffic Control Squadron at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina Air National Guard, poses for his official portrait June 21, 2013.  (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Caycee Watson/Released)

Chief Master Sgt. Ed Bruce, 245th Air Traffic Control Squadron.

MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. -- While looking back over previous articles in preparation for my own this month, I enjoyed reviewing the bevy of valuable information contained in these sections.  The importance of professional military education, professional development, readiness, resiliency and relevance are just a sampling of the valuable topics discussed here by our senior enlisted members.  The common thread touched on again and again, either explicitly or implicitly, is the importance of leadership.  While we (rightfully so) continually stress leadership in all aspects of our military career, we discuss the subsets of leadership that make the whole possible far less frequently.  One of these subsets in particular makes up the dominant role of our careers...Followership.   

Followership refers to a role of, the capacity of or the willingness to actively follow a leader.  We are all subordinate to someone, regardless of rank or position.  Followers are those subordinates who have less authority, influence and power than their leaders but have the ability to take direction, support decisions, be a team player and deliver on what is expected of them. 

Combing through the volumes of training dedicated to preparing us to become better and more effective leaders, followership is considered, but less often discussed in forums like this, than the overarching general concept it supports.  In this article, I don't have the space or time to teach how to be a follower but will attempt to guide you towards the information that can help.  Air Force Pamphlet (AFPAM) 36-2241, Professional Development Guide, addresses this topic specifically.  It provides a list of points essential to good followership as a subset of leadership.  The 10 points listed are Organizational Understanding, Decision-making, Communication Skills, Commitment, Problem Solving, Integrity, Adaptability, Self-employment, Courage and Credibility.  These points, more than just subsets, are in fact mandatory principles of effective leadership.  There are no leaders without followers and the success of an organization is dependent on the strengths of both, leader and follower. 

Robert Kelley, a social scientist in the study of followership, best sums up the relationship between leadership and followership.  "In reality, followership and leadership are two separate concepts, two separate roles.  They are complementary, not competitive; paths to organizational contribution...The greatest successes require that people in both roles turn in top rate performances."

Air Force Doctrine defines leadership.  The following quote is an excerpt of that definition:

Leadership does not equal command, but all commanders should be leaders. Any Air Force member can be a leader and can positively influence those around him or her to accomplish the mission.

The vast majority of Air Force leaders are not commanders. These individuals, who have stepped forward to lead others in accomplishing the mission, simultaneously serve as both leaders and followers at every level of the Air Force.

This all sounds like common sense but often organizations suffer from poor followership.  Problems manifest themselves as followers display poor work ethic, lack of knowledge, become discontent with coworkers and/or leaders, undermine instead of supporting decisions, lose their loyalty to the leader or organization or place their own needs ahead of the organizational goals.  A leader can remedy some of these issues by fostering open communication, holding all subordinates accountable, encouraging and empowering their followers, displaying respect, and finally by taking a vested interest in his/her followers.  

The success or failure of an organization is not only dependent on the leader's ability to lead but the follower's ability to follow.  In today's military, we serve as leaders and followers simultaneously.  We must continue to hone our skills as followers for the health and effectiveness of our organizations, and to help prepare us to be better leaders for tomorrow.