Followers can be, should be leaders
By Lt. Col. David Bruce, 366th Civil Engineer Squadron Commander
/ Published July 21, 2010
MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- A few weeks ago General Stanley McChrystal was summoned back from the battlefields of Afghanistan to Washington to answer for disparaging comments made by him and his staff to a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine about the Vice President and others in the Obama Administration and Congress. After meeting with President Obama, Gen. McChrystal was fired. Most of the newspapers and news channels described his actions as insubordinate. I found one article published in the Harvard Business Review that describes the situation as a failure of leadership by the general. I think this article made some really good points that can be a lesson for all of us.
Many of us on this base are leaders, either by position or by natural gift and demeanor. All of us are followers, however, because all of us work for someone who leads us. This article is not meant to be a criticism of Gen. McChrystal. Instead, my intent is to point out that we are all followers, that you can be an effective leader and an effective follower at the same time.
Being a "follower" sounds very unexciting, and even has negative connotations associated with the term. I think this bad rap comes from the old days when the things were simpler: the leader made all the decisions (and got all the glory), and the followers were expected to do what they were ordered to do, no more, no less. Followers were expected to have blind allegiance and obedience to their leader, and to "do or die." Think about it: you can read stories all day long about famous leaders from the American Revolution or the Civil War, but how many names do you know of the brave enlisted soldiers who fought these wars?
It doesn't work that way today. In our Air Force, executing our mission is so complex no one person can list, let alone understand, each and every action required to make the mission happen every day. Complexity also makes it impossible for a leader to have absolute awareness of everything happening, and one person can't possibly make every decision. So, today's leaders depend on their followers to be leaders too. Being a "good follower" in today's world doesn't mean you are a sheep. Good followership means being a good leader at your own level, to support and meet the objectives of your supervisors. Today the names of Airmen who embraced followership and were also strong leaders are a key part of our Air Force culture: Pitzenbarger, Levitow and others. We can all lead from our positions in the Air Force. Even the youngest Airman is a leader when he is a good wingman and encourages his peers to act smart.
You can read PME articles about modern followership until you're blue in the face to get all the theory behind it. I think you can be an effective leader and follower by doing just a few things right. First is to remember that your job is to support and execute your boss' objectives, and never undercut them. At times, this can be really difficult to do. You can blatantly undercut your chain of command, similar to what happened with Gen. McChrystal's staff, but it can also be done with subtlety. We've all been in meetings discussing an unpopular decision and heard a supervisor say something like "I don't agree, but So-And-So wants us to ______." A statement like that sends the message that the supervisor isn't brave or professional enough to make an unpopular decision himself. It also is disloyal to the chain of command and invites subordinates to do the same, eventually. If you don't like a decision or policy, don't be afraid to ask why or offer alternate solutions, but at the same time you should be prepared to accept and carry out the final decision once it's made as if you made the decision yourself.
Next, be responsible and willingly accountable for your part of the mission. We are paid to execute the mission despite whatever obstacles are in front of us. When things go wrong, resist the temptation to play the blame game. All that does is delay fixing the solution, because it puts attention on who screwed up instead of getting the mission done. Instead, own the problem and work to fixing it. There will be plenty of time to figure out what went wrong later. Someday you may face a really unique and challenging crisis, and your bosses may be as clueless on how to solve it as everyone else. It happens. Develop a solution-oriented mindset and be ready to put it to use. If you can come up with a solution and sell it to your boss, this is leadership up the chain.
Last, don't be afraid to make the decisions you're empowered to make. None of us work in an environment where the work is simple enough that one person can do all the thinking and decision-making. Running a flight, a squadron, a group or fighter wing is complex business, and leadership depends on its technical experts to make decisions at the proper level, in order for the organization to function. This means that by exhibiting good followership and making the decisions you can, you are exercising the power leadership has given you. Keep your boss informed and make them comfortable with how you are focusing on taking care of his/her priorities. This will help build trust and confidence in you and reduce the temptation to micromanage.