Year of Leadership: Followership: The Forgotten Attribute of Leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. Roderick Davis
  • 341st Mission Support Group commander
This year, Air Force Space Command is in the process of re-bluing its Airmen in the art of leadership. As we all are aware, we focus on one of the many sides of leadership each month, and February's focus is followership. If you ask anyone to describe leadership and its key attributes, the answer probably entails everything from making decisions and standing behind your people, to getting the mission accomplished. I would say very few would state one of the keys to good leadership is being a good follower. We all comprehend and identify with the "good" leaders ... we identify them for many reasons, one of which is that they understand their subordinates and how they follow their directives. But, these same leaders need to understand their followership style, as well. We spend most of our time in a followership role, therefore let's take a moment and examine the spectrum of followership and its relationship to a sound leader.

In his book, "The Power of Leadership," Robert Kelly states that followership has two dimensions: independent critical thinking and active engagement. At first glance, some would say you can't be a follower if you are critical or actively engaged in a process. Nothing is further from the truth. 

Critical thinkers provide critical feedback and are innovative and creative, whereas non-critical thinkers must be told what to do, and can't function on their own in any situation. Active engagement requires initiative, ownership and being a self-starter, whereas the opposite is true for someone that is passive, needs constant supervision and shies away from responsibility. It is apparent that good followers are critical thinkers and actively engaged in the work process.

Mr. Kelly further underlines five types of followers: alienated, passive, conformist, pragmatic and exemplary followers. Each one of these followers can determine the effectiveness of your leadership style. For example, the alienated follower is someone who enjoys a positive self-image but views others that don't share in their opinion as an "obstruction" or adversarial and are unhappy with their situation. While reviewing each of the followership styles, look inward and see if you see yourself. And if so, think about your style and its effect on the organization.

An alienated follower is someone who is normally labeled by other leaders as cynical or negative. An alienated follower is a critical thinker but does not act on their assessment of any situation.

A conformist follower accepts assignments and is pleased to do the work assigned. However, they lack critical thinking, and they "go with the flow." A conformist is comfortable just following the pack and not looking at what the ultimate outcome of their actions is.

A pragmatist follows the politics of an organization, is adverse to risk and has minimal enthusiasm or drive. The pragmatist is a middle of the road person...they question authority but not very often and definitely not critically.

The passive follower does nothing but follow. They rely on the leader to provide judgment and decisions, doesn't take on any of the workplace issues, puts in their time but little else, and require more than their share of management's time. Passive followers look to the leader for everything ... they have no critical thinking capability and no desire to actively engage in anything relating to the workplace.

Finally, we have the exemplary follower. Exemplary followers perform on all cylinders. They are independent critical thinkers, yet separate from the leader, while at the same time they are actively engage using their talents to benefit the organization. They use their talent to not only complement the leader in their efforts but also to relieve the leader of tasks. They have the job and organizational skills to push the organization and its mission to even higher levels.

Understanding followership is essential to understanding leadership. Knowing your co-workers and supervisors' followership style affects how effective you are as a leader. It is also important to note that no matter what your followership style is, you can evolve to an exemplary follower though effort, understanding of individual shortfalls and stepping outside of the style you are comfortable with.

A final thought on followership: If we review the many discussions and commander's calls, etc., that Col. Fortney has held over the last five months, you will see all of this was indeed the underlying theme of his vision for the wing. He didn't call it followership...he called it "leadership." He has said, and continues to state in every forum, that "all" Airmen are leaders, and as you can see, being a follower is key to being a leader.