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Be proud to be a follower—I am

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mike Schwan
  • Chief of Safety
"We have good corporals and good sergeants and some good lieutenants and captains, and those are far more important than good generals." - Gen. William T. Sherman

The Air Force emphasizes leadership and developing leaders, yet without followers the mission would never be successfully accomplished. Moreover, we are all followers to some degree. While we should all strive to become effective leaders, we should simultaneously develop our followership abilities.

Both leadership and followership share the same characteristics--integrity, courage, honesty, etc.--they are simply used in different ways. I am in no way, nor do I want to pretend, that I'm an expert in followership, but below are ten tenants of followership that I have absorbed throughout my life, either through mentors or the hard way. Through these tenants, I have discovered the most about leadership by learning to be a follower.

1. Bad news does not get better with age. It takes tremendous courage to inform your boss when things go bad, yet sharing bad news is best when the news is fresh. This also includes owning up to your own failures. Your boss will appreciate the ownership and you will often be surprised that the response is more positive than negative.

2. Challenge your boss--in private. If you disagree with your boss, do not hide it. Just make sure that you explain your point of view respectfully and behind closed doors. Once a decision is made, make it your own and fully support your boss's vision to others in the organization.

3. Don't come with problems --come with solutions. You will encounter numerous problems throughout your career that require a decision from your boss. Ensure you develop a few possible solutions to the problem before engaging with your boss. Your solutions do not need to be fully developed, just ideas on possible courses of action. This shows initiative and that you can be trusted to find and carry out corrective actions.

4. Demand feedback and professional development. Take time to schedule initial, mid-term, and additional feedback sessions throughout the year. Clarify your boss's expectations whenever you are starting to question your role in the organization. Additionally, seek and ask for professional development opportunities.

5. Submit a 1206 (quarterly award package) for yourself every quarter. This has several advantages. First, you will be surprised at how many times you will be your organization's selection for a quarterly award. Second, you will develop your Air Force writing abilities. Finally, Officer Performance Report, Enlisted Performance Report, or Civilian Appraisal will be a breeze to complete, which your boss will appreciate.

6. Don't be afraid to say "no" to taskings. You are only capable of completing a finite number of tasks. When you are approaching your limit, let your boss know. You will find yourself task saturated if you don't and will not be able to produce quality work or meet timelines without sacrificing something. It's better to do five things well than ten things poorly.

7. Anticipate and answer your boss's boss's questions before they are asked. There will be numerous situations when your boss will have to answer to his or her boss. Try to predict these questions and prepare your boss with the answers. This will show forward thinking and loyalty to your boss. If you have your boss's back, he or she will have yours when needed.

8. Seek mentors. Mentors can assist you develop professionally and, perhaps more importantly, personally. Don't limit your mentors to one type; try to establish a network of officer, enlisted, and civilian mentors--what I call the trifecta. Additionally, choose mentors who will give you tough answers, not just what you want to hear.

9. Write down your goals and update frequently. We all have personal and professional goals. Write them down and post them where you can see them daily--you may be amazed at how many you achieve when reminded continuously.

10. Take care of yourself. This may be the most critical tenant. Make sure you take time for yourself and your family. Leave work at work. When you are off, spend time focusing on your physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. You will find yourself a better Airman and person.

Here are a few resources if you are interested in learning more on followership: The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations, by Ronald Riggio; The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, by Ira Chaleff; and Leadership is Half the Story: A Fresh Look at Followership, Leadership, and Collaboration, by Marc Hurwitz.

Lastly, be proud to be a follower--I am.