Leadership Beginnings

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Allen Spillers
  • 307th Civil Engineer Squadron
Does leadership stem solely out of a position, title or rank?  Are leaders made or are some people born leaders, as I have heard many times in my life?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines leadership as:
: a position as a leader of a group, organization, etc.
: the time when a person holds the position of leader
: the power or ability to lead other people

From the definition we see that leadership is defined as a position, but interestingly enough it also stipulates it as the ability to lead other people.  So where does this ability come from?  Is it learned or is it truly something that is ingrained in certain individuals at the time of birth?

Many times personnel are placed in leadership roles and inherently believe that their unit will follow them due to the title on their door or their rank and they do nothing to bolster the substance of their character within their unit. Leadership should be about being the person that people want to follow as much as it is about ensuring mission success.  As a leader, if your personnel believe in you and your vision, then your unit will automatically become successful - they have buy in and a stake in its success.  Your vision first of all has to be communicated and then has to be transparent.  That is to say, your personnel cannot meet goals unless they know exactly what the goals are and they need constant/immediate feedback - they need to know what you know, good or bad. With the current technology driven environment we work in today, our personnel throughout our bases know almost immediately what is going on anyway, so as a leader you must do your due diligence to ensure they hear it from you first.

When we think about leadership, we tend to focus almost entirely on the leader. Yet without followers, there is no leader. Leadership has to be a two way avenue: leaders and followers existing in a mutually beneficial relationship where each adds to the effectiveness of the other.  I have heard that an organization is only good as its leaders, but I believe that it is conversely true that it is also only as good as its followers.  Followership will always be in the shadow of leadership, but fundamentally, the most important contribution leaders make to their units and the Air Force is to ensure that the mission can continue without them. 

"We have good corporals and good sergeants and
some good lieutenants and captains, and those are
far more important than good generals."
                                -- Gen William T. Sherman

If you have never heard the term followership before or never thought twice about it, you are not alone. Is it a new concept? Not really; just one that is often overlooked or forgotten, even though it is listed in Section III, No. 6 of the Enlist Performance Report (EPR).  Followership can be defined as the capacity or willingness to follow a leader.  In the military it is the willingness to cooperate in working towards the accomplishment of the unit mission, to demonstrate the use of teamwork and to build cohesion among the unit.

So, are you a leader or a follower?  The real answer is that we fulfill both roles simultaneously from the day we enter military service.  We are all followers--following is a natural part of life as we grow into adulthood and it is an essential part of the success of any military unit.  Due to the hierarchical structure of the military, by definition most military members are followers more often than leaders - even some of those considered in leadership roles. If we are not good followers, it stands to reason that we will not be good leaders within the military system.  With that in mind, you would think that more of our military professional development programs would spend time teaching effective followership skills, which in turn would develop into leadership skills.   

As military members we must constantly look within ourselves to evaluate our own views towards leadership, the unit and ourselves as followers in order to get a better understanding of our organizational situation. By going through this cycle we can learn how to create change in ourselves, how to deal with difficulties and how to become productive and happy followers. We might also learn that being a leader is not as easy as it may sometimes appear!  The natural "grass is greener on the other side" scenario, but most always it is the same grass, just different view.

Most of us would agree that making changes within ourselves is difficult at best, especially for us that are older, but all of us would agree it is easier than changing others. If you have experienced frustrations or misunderstandings with your unit's leader, take a step back and view the situation from their perspective, reflect on if you are being a good follower and then ask yourself how you can help improve the situation within your organization.  Even if you are satisfied with your leadership, it is necessary for you - just as it is for a leader - to evaluate your role as a follower to determine if you are doing what is right for the unit and that you are performing to an acceptable level.  Remember, effective leadership requires effective followership. Do your best to make your unit the best it can be!