Army Leadership and Followership

Guest Post by CSM(R) Mark Gerecht

The Army defines leadership as the process of influencing others by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission.  The Army values strong confident leaders.  These individuals are expected to make difficult decisions in a timely manner often under adverse conditions with limited resources.  However, the Army as an institution frequently overlooks an equally important aspect of leadership.  So just want is this frequently overlooked aspect of the Army leadership process?   Followership! This article will explore followership, some perceptions related to followership, and some suggestions on how to implement followership into your leadership style.

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Learn more about Army leadership and followership!

Followership is defined as:  the ability or willingness to follow a leader. Sounds kind of wimpy for a military leader doesn’t it?  That’s probably because as military leaders we have been groomed to take charge and make decisions. From our first day of service we are pounded and molded to be a leader.  It is poured into our being from every direction and interaction.  If we are not viewed as a leader we are by default weak and therefore not worthy of being a leader.   However this thought process fails to understand that in order for us to be in charge and make decisions there must be followers.  If we are all shaped to be leaders, who does the following? Behind every leader is a group of individuals that determines the level of a leader’s success.  It is the depth of the subordinates desire to follow and execute directives and seek initiative that often results in success.

When a leader understands their position of authority and is inclusive/respectful of their subordinates typically leadership becomes a participatory process that leverages the best from each side.  The converse of this is also true.  When the senior leader fails to appreciate the importance of followers the leadership relationship tends to go bad in a hurry and frequently results in individuals arguing amongst themselves with a divided purpose.  As leaders we must all understand regardless of our position in life (military or civilian) we all have a boss and as such we are expected to follow their directives.  In the military we are expected to follow orders as long as those directives are legal, morale, ethical, and safe.  So how do we implement Followership into the leadership process?

One of the best ways would be to being incorporating the principle of followership into formal military education in an effort to reduce the stigma of followers being weak minded or individuals who have difficulty in leadership positions. Next is the practice of execution.  This execution must be understood by both sides of the leadership equation.  The leader must ensure there is an environment that fosters respect and dignity, open communication, and motivates subordinate not only to participate but to excel in their duties and responsibilities.  Next the follower must be willing to submit to the leader’s authority.  In the military this is an implied task. There is nothing wrong with being a follower that executes directives to standard, ensures the boss is informed so he/she can make sound and timely decisions. In fact being a good follower is paramount to being a great leader.  The relationship works best when both parties work together for the common good.  A former commander of mine said it best when he stated:

“When in charge, take charge! When not in charge have the grace to let those in charge be in charge!”

So what does being a good follower look like?

  1. Grow where you are planted.  If you are put in a position you do not want or like do the best possible job you can and keep a positive attitude.  Eventually this strategy pays off
  2. Don’t be a yes person.  If you disagree be able to clearly and concisely explain why and offer alternatives courses of action.  It is also better to start off criticism with a positive aspect and end up offering an alternative.  For example: Sir/Ma’am, I like the approach as it takes into consideration several of the planning factors but….I would like to offer the following suggestion.
  3. Accept Responsibility for your actions.  Never blame someone else for your actions or inaction.
  4. Integrity.  Never allow your integrity to be questioned.  No one can take your integrity away.  You have to give it away!
  5. The Devil is in the Details.  Make sure you give your boss all the information he/she needs to make an informed decision.  Provide recommendations where appropriate.
  6. Moral Compass.  If your boss is out of line you have a duty and responsibility to discuss the issue with them and hold them accountable.  This must be done in a respectful and professional manner. Make sure you have the facts.  Do not make accusations.  Often unit leadership degrades when senior leaders feel entitled or certain rules do not apply to them.  Usually when a subordinate leader calls out a senior leader in a professional/respectful way and holds them accountable the situation tends to change.
  7. Attitude and Tone are Everything.  Deliver the message with proper attitude and tone.  The wrong attitude and tone can destroy the best course of action before it is even discussed.

None of these suggestions are without risk.  A follower is not always a follower! They are leaders who understand their duties, responsibilities, and authority.  They will take charge in the absence of orders and do their absolute best to ensure their boss is always on the target.  If you are a follower do your best and always exercise initiative.  If you are the leader build your team so your subordinates are empowered and can approach you about anything.

If you would like to learn more information on followership please read “The Ten Rules of Good Followership” by COL. Phillip S. Meilinger.

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About the Author 

Mark is a Retired Command Sergeant Major with 26 years of military leadership experience. He held 3 military occupational specialties (Field Artillery, Nuclear Weapons Tech, and Ammunition Ordnance). Mark is one of the leading military authors in the fields of leadership, counseling, and training.  He owns three successful websites to include GIPubs.comAskTop.net, and ArmyCounselingOnline.com.  Feel free to check out his websites to learn more about him.

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9 thoughts on “Army Leadership and Followership”

  1. What effect does the type of leadership have on the group? Are democratic methods less efficient than authoritarian, as even many lovers of democracy believe? Or does a group work better under a democratic leader who uses persuasion rather than force, education rather than propaganda,

  2. So many good thoughts in this article, I don’t know where to begin. One that jumped out at me was the overlapping of leadership and followership. While you may not be in a formal leadership position, circumstances could arise at any time demanding that someone other than the understood leader step up. My thoughts about followership also extend to someone in a leadership role being willing to follow, and recognizing that these opportunities exist, because there is someone above them they answer to, and there must be a willingness to respect that chain of command. In addition, it is often well advised to have a trusted mentor, who may or may not be your boss, who will provide constructive criticism, insight, wisdom and opportunities for growth. Leadership should never stop trying to “sharpen the saw,” as Steven Covey put it.

    I particularly appreciate the discussion about a leader fostering the willingness to follow. Leaders have to build trust. Mark, you used the phrase “influencing others by providing purpose” in your opening sentence, which speaks volumes to me. Leaders are responsible for creating an understanding of the purpose of the objectives, as well as the value of following this particular leader to meet that purpose. In addition, a leader must also recognize–ego aside–each person’s value, and facilitate their followers’ understanding that they do, indeed, have value to the group and its purpose.

  3. There is a lot of wisdom in this blog post. I think many of us have had the types of leaders that don’t understand that, at a certain point, some things have to be taken care of without them. If you don’t know what it’s like to follow a good leader, then I don’t believe you can effectively become a good leader. Experience breeds leadership.

    1. Some leaders are horrible followers. All leaders have a boss and need to be a follower too. Even if you lead a team of your own, you’re also part of someone else’s team. Never forget that. Be a team player. There is no “I” in team.

  4. More good points here than you can shake a stick at. As Mark says, military culture is always focused on leadership. Yet every leader at every level is also a follower. Even the most senior four-star answers to the president. Ego in leadership is a delicate balancing act. A leader has to have enough ego to have (and project) confidence, but too many times I’ve seen leadership conflicts devolve into anatomy-measuring contests. To repeat the words NCOs live by (or at least should), “Mission first, Soldiers always.” Leadership doesn’t exist without followers, and no leader can accomplish very much without the efforts of those followers. Always remember it’s about the unit and the mission, not about you. When I became a first sergeant, I noticed that in some respects I got treated differently, but I’ve always tried to keep my focus on the greater responsibility I now have, not on the greater rank. I’m not special beyond the experience I can use to lead and develop my Soldiers and the rank I can use to protect and care for them.

    1. I wish more leaders understood servant leadership. Our Soldiers don’t exist to serve us. Instead, we exist to serve them. Without Soldiers, we wouldn’t need leaders. Without leaders, Soldiers could still get the job done.

      Chuck Holmes

  5. Great post, Mark.

    I like the idea of not being a “yes” person. The Army has enough of those. If you are not going to be a “yes person” you need to be an “idea person.” That means you need to offer solutions! Don’t just be a person who talks about problems, but never offers a way to solve those problems.

    Also, I like your idea about “grow where you are planted.” Sometimes, a job we don’t want can turn out to be a blessing. Maybe the job will introduce us to an influential person, teach us new skills, or position us for a future job. I always tell people the job doesn’t make the person, it reveals the person. Whatever you do, be the best at what you do and you will one day rise to the top.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Chuck Holmes

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