The Art of Followership...

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Brian Heaps
  • 14th Contracting Squadron commander
There are times in life when the most significant events occur in the strangest places. There I was, walking through the AF compound on one of those cool summer days at Ali Air Base, Iraq, when I was hit by one of those events.

As many of you know, the great artists of the world compose their works on the walls at many installations throughout the Middle East. One of these murals was to promote the First Four, the enlisted E-1 to E-4 group on the base. The tagline was simple, yet powerful, "before you lead, you must first learn to follow."

While the concept seems so simple, the execution is much more complex. You can walk into any local bookstore and see hundreds, if not thousands, of books on leadership and management. Yet, I don't recall seeing anything on followership; not one book on the characteristics or the various ways to be a great follower, not one book on how to develop a follower.

Upon return from my deployment, I set forth three priorities for 14th Contracting Squadron. One of those priorities is to talk about followership. Specifically, I've identified what I believe are some of the attributes of a great follower. I would like to share three of them with you.

The first and, I believe, most important attribute is passion. A search on Webster's dictionary online provides one applicable definition as an "intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction." Can you say that you are executing your part of the 14th Flying Training Wing mission with an intense, driving conviction? I believe we all ask ourselves that question on occasion. If you don't have that consistent passion, then are you just going through the motions? If so, how much impact are you having on our mission, on your professional development, and on others around you? Probably not a lot and, if any, it's probably not positive.

Another essential trait is a learning attitude. Simply stated, a good follower will have the desire (or passion) to acquire new knowledge, skills and abilities. I'm not looking for robots and I'm not talking about "outside the box" thinking. In our profession, we have to operate inside the box as a normal matter of course; your responsibility as a follower is to learn what's in the box. In our compliance-driven environment, this may also involve "unlearning" wrong processes and negative attitudes and behavior. Grasping fundamental concepts is paramount.

Finally, good followers must be loyal. Our allegiance and oath speaks to the heart of our way of life, our democracy, our flag, and our nation. I cannot think of any oaths pertaining to a specific individual. However, this American experience is in the hands of people...both leaders and followers alike. Our loyalties for these principles and beliefs are, therefore, imputed to the leaders charged with these responsibilities.

While none of these attributes are earth-shattering, all are characteristics of great leaders. This should be of no surprise, since you must first be a good follower to become a great leader. Since we are all followers, the question is to determine whether you are being that good follower. For our dedication to good followership is directly proportional to our growth as good leaders. If you are also a leader, the answer to that question may indicate where you currently stand as a leader.