Defining followership

  • Published
  • By Cmdr. Steve Weldon
  • Naval Information Operations Command-Colorado Commanding Officer
Followership. We don't hear much about followership. We kind of intuitively know what it is. We don't see the same number of books written on followership as on leadership. We don't talk about followership as much as leadership. We all aspire to be great leaders. Do we aspire to be great followers? Who's the most inspirational leader you've ever met? Who's the most inspirational follower you've ever met? Can we be great leaders without being great followers? These are just a few of the thoughts and questions that came to my mind when I tackled the topic of "followership" for this article.

My question today, as we focus on followership, is what kind of followers are we? We ask much of our leaders. We want them to formulate solid plans and make good decisions. We want them to be fair. We want them to set the example; to walk the walk. With these expectations of our leaders, are we being the kind of followers they need and deserve?

What does a follower do?

Duh! A follower follows, right?

Ok, but what does that really mean? I believe a good follower is one who carries out the actions that are part of the leader's plans. A good follower makes it happen. A good follower may ask for clarification to ensure the leader's orders are accomplished efficiently and effectively. A good follower may raise concerns with the leader, especially when safety is in question. Don't we owe that to our leaders? We expect our leaders to know much, but we may well know details they do not.

Why should we want to be good followers? In this Year of Leadership we will learn much about leadership and leaders. As we study leaders, let's ask ourselves if they are also followers. How many leaders can we think of off the top of our heads who aren't also followers? It's a semi-rhetorical question; answers can range from zero to maybe a small handful.

I'm privileged to be the commanding officer of a great group of Sailors at Naval Information Operations Command-Colorado. Rest assured I am also a follower. I count no less than five officers, from O-6 to O-9, that I call, "Boss."

For them to be successful I need to give them my all; my skills, my intellect -- however limited -- and my commitment. I have great bosses and I find it easy to follow them. Yes, it's a little tougher when they make a decision that I find distasteful or disagree with. That's when I need to remind myself of who I strive to be as a follower. Do I trash the boss in public or do I make my concerns known privately? Can I support the leader in this unpopular decision? Can I not?

Leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin. Without followers there can be no leaders. Without leaders a group of would-be followers is just a collection of individuals doing their own thing. Our missions won't allow for either. In our profession, leaders need capable followers and followers need capable leaders. Does the relationship between leaders and followers go a step further? I don't believe we can be good leaders if we don't know how to follow. Further, I believe by being good followers and studying and observing our leaders carefully, we can learn much about leadership. This learning molds and shapes us as leaders, and never stops.

In this Year of Leadership, let us strive to learn as much as we can about others and about ourselves. We can all be leaders and we are all followers.

Have a great Navy day!