Year of Leadership: Air Force's success built on followership

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. James McNair
  • 341st Force Support Squadron first sergeant
"We have good corporals and good sergeant,s and some good lieutenants and captains, and those are far more important than good generals." -- Gen. William T. Sherman

What was General Sherman talking about when he made that statement?

The truth is, the Air Force can't survive without each member being a successful leader and a successful follower. But how does one succeed at the art of followership? Thinking back to our earliest memories, following is a natural part of life. We followed our parent's example. At times, we followed our friends and now, for those in the Air Force, we follow the orders of those appointed over us.

The art of followership comes down to discipline. We will not always agree with the decisions made by our leaders, but if an individual is an effective follower, than they will embrace those decisions. According to author Robert E. Kelley, what distinguishes an effective from an ineffective follower is enthusiastic, intelligent and self-reliant participation without star billing in the pursuit of an organizational goal.

In simplest terms, being a good follower comes down to the effort one is putting into the organization. Are they working effectively with others? Are they embracing change? Are they doing the job correctly and do they appreciate their own skills?

Being a first sergeant, I have the opportunity to speak to Airmen going through different phases of their careers and it always amazes me how many of them don't feel that their job really matters in the big picture. Can a person who feels their job really doesn't matter be a good follower, or for that matter, will they fully embrace the organizational goals? I submit that they will do what we ask them to do, but it will be a job and nothing else.

A successful follower is one who knows their voice matters and their efforts are appreciated. How do we ensure our Airmen are effective followers?

First we need to build trust, which consists of providing honest feedback. We have no problems correcting someone who is not meeting standards, but how many times do we pull someone aside just to say thank you for their efforts?

Secondly, we need to give our Airmen timely feedback, and finally we need to take the time to explain the unit's mission and goals. If the wing commander asked an Airman, "What do you do for Malmstrom AFB and the Air Force," what type of answer would he receive?

Would the Airmen just tell him the organization they worked in or would they have enough pride to go into detail about how they were making Malmstrom a better place?

A successful follower also knows that while they may not always agree with the decisions made by leadership, they will accept those decisions and do everything in their power to successfully implement the decision as if it was their idea.

Whether you are the President of the United States or an Airman who graduated Basic Training yesterday, we are all followers because each and every one of us has someone who gives us guidance.

It all comes down to what type of follower you want to be. Are you going to be someone who questions everything and only follows because there is no other choice? Or are you going to be the type of follower who embraces change and will do everything in your power to make Malmstrom the best base in the Air Force?