The Prerequisite for Effective Leadership
Lt Col Sharon M. Latour, USAF and Lt Col Vicki J. Rast, USAF
The following article was
originally published in the Winter 2004 issue of
& Space Power Journal. Reprinted here with the kind permission of
Air & Space Power Journal.
Part 1 of 2
Editorial Abstract: Rather than encouraging leaders to mentor followers to
"follow me" as an imitation learning imperative, leaders may mentor to specific
and objective abilities/traits to create dynamic subordinates. These dynamic
follower competencies form a foundation from which follower initiative can grow
to leader initiative more naturally. The identified follower competencies help
leaders focus their mentoring efforts. This approach encourages followers to
develop fully, based on their personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and
"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
Are you a leader? A follower? The reality is that we fulfill both roles
simultaneously from the day we enter military service, throughout our career,
and well into our "golden years." We are followers—following is a natural part
of life and an essential role we play in fulfilling our war-fighting roles and
missions. Since most institutions conform to bureaucratic or hierarchical
organizational models, the majority of any military institution’s members are,
by definition, followers more often than leaders.
Few professional-development programs—including those of the US military—spend
time developing effective follower cultures and skills. Instead, commissioning
sources, college business programs, executive seminars, and professional
military education curricula focus on developing leaders. Some people would
argue that the various military technical schools fill the gap in follower
development for career-minded Airmen, both commissioned and noncommissioned.
This approach only diminishes the value that followers contribute to war
fighting. If technical training and continuing education/leadership development
at the right time in a person’s career is an accepted "booster shot" for
developing effective followers, why not implement a similar strategy to shape
effective leaders? The answer is that most of us intuitively know that such measures fall far short of the requirement to
attract and retain people of the caliber the Air Force needs in the future. In
other words, our service expends most of its resources educating a fraction of
its members, communicating their value to the institution, and establishing
career paths founded on assessing selected leadership characteristics—while
seemingly ignoring the vast majority who "merely" follow. This strategy is
inadequate for honing warrior skills within the rapidly transforming strategic
environment that will prevail for the foreseeable future.
The present formula promotes the illusion of effectiveness, but it does not
optimize institutional performance. How do we know this? A cursory review of
retention rates among Air Force members indicates that among "followers,"
instilling institutional commitment continues to be a persistent problem. For
example, according to Air Force Personnel Center statistics, the service seeks
to retain 55 percent of first-term Airmen, 75 percent of second-term Airmen, and
95 percent of the career enlisted force. With the exception of fiscal year 2002
when stop-loss measures prevented separation actions, the Air Force has not met
these modest goals for all three noncommissioned categories since fiscal year
1996.1 For crucial officer specialties, the story is not much better.
The Air Force’s rated career fields (pilots, navigators, and air-battle
managers) consistently retain approximately 50–70 percent of their officers.
Active duty service commitments and career incentive pays, however, tend to skew
retention data in the aggregate. Nonrated operations officers (space,
intelligence, and weather) retain 48–65 percent of their members, while
mission-support officers elect to stay in the service at an average rate of 44
percent.2 Air Force efforts to boost these numbers tend to focus on "quality of
life" issues—a catchall category that includes projects such as better pay,
housing, and base facilities. All of these initiatives are important and
appreciated, but they fail to address the role individuals play in accomplishing
the unit’s mission as followers. Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of
worker dissatisfaction, follower-development programs should take advantage of
opportunities to instill/reinforce institutional values, model effective
follower roles and behaviors, and begin the mentoring process.
Developing dynamic followership is a discipline. It is jointly an art and a
science requiring skill and conceptualization of roles in innovative ways—one
perhaps more essential to mission success than leader development. Without
followership, a leader at any level will fail to produce effective institutions.
Valuing followers and their development is the first step toward cultivating
effective transformational leaders—people capable of motivating followers to
achieve mission requirements in the absence of hygienic or transactional rewards
(i.e., immediate payoffs for visible products). This shift away from
transactional leadership demands that we begin developing and sustaining
transformational followership to enhance transformational leadership. A dynamic
followership program should produce individuals who, when the moment arrives,
seamlessly transition to lead effectively while simultaneously fulfilling their
follower roles in support of their superiors. This goal helps us identify a
strategy for follower development. Just as studies have identified desirable
characteristics for effective leaders, so can we propose follower competencies
upon which to base follower development in terms of specific skills and
educational programs to advance critical thinking toward sound judgment. This
approach demands that leaders recognize and fulfill their responsibilities in
developing specific follower attributes or competencies within their
subordinates. Leadership-development experts have proposed models for
identifying desirable traits in leaders; similarly, followership studies can
benefit from the discipline inherent in model development. A model that
concentrates on institutional values and follower abilities would provide a
starting point for synergistically integrating leader-follower development
programs. As leaders capitalize on their followers’ competencies, they will
equip their organizations’ members to achieve the visions they articulate for
Revolutionizing Traditional Leader-Follower Roles
Institutional changes in leader-follower roles and relationships lie at
the root of why the Air Force needs to engage in dynamic followership programs
to enhance its warrior culture. These shifts mirror similar shifts in business
and industry. One researcher noted
increasing pressure on all kinds of organizations to function
with reduced resources. Reduced resources and company downsizing have reduced
the number of managers and increased their span of control, which in turn leaves
followers to pick up many of the functions traditionally performed by leaders. .
. . Furthermore, the nature of the problems faced by many organizations is
becoming so complex and the changes so rapid that more people are required to
solve them. . . . In general, making organizations better is a task that needs
to be "owned" by followers as well as leaders.3
Corporate downsizing, increased pressure to deliver results, and increasing
span of control for leaders are familiar concepts to military members. What some
businesses and military institutions have missed as these pressures exerted
themselves on leader-follower cultures is that leaders have ample opportunity to
learn strategies and techniques for coping with change in the workplace.
Followers, however, generally face two choices: (1) undergoing on-the-job
learning that levies leadership responsibilities on them without commensurate
authority or (2) entering a defensive crouch against the increasing workload.
Both choices erode individual morale and institutional mission
effectiveness—neither proves effective for producing capable followers within
our Air Force.
According to Robert E. Kelley, a prominent social scientist in followership
studies, "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." Zeroing in on the task of
developing followers, Kelley argues that "understanding motivations and
perceptions is not enough."4 He focuses on two behavioral dimensions for
determining follower effectiveness: critical thinking and participation.
Critical thinking involves going beyond collecting information or observing
activities passively. It implies an active mental debate with things or events
that we could otherwise process at face value. The active, independent mind
confronts the situation and scrutinizes it closely, as if to stand it on its
head or on its side, conducting a thorough examination of its far-reaching
implications or possibilities. Many current, successful leaders cite critical
thinking as a behavior they expect of their most valued followers. As for the
concept of participation, a person engaged actively and comprehensively brings
to mind an image of someone "leaning forward" into the situation at hand. This
posture enables the person and those he or she affects to be in a position to
anticipate requirements and plan accordingly. Conversely, passive individuals
remain trapped in a perpetually reactive mode, placing themselves at the mercy
of the prevailing current rather than preparing for impending tidal changes. In
combination, critical thinking and participation generate four follower
Kelley argues that effective followers tend to be highly participative, critical
thinkers. This type of person courageously dissents when necessary, shares
credit, admits mistakes, and habitually exercises superior judgment. Kelley
suggests that this follower possesses several essential qualities:
self-management, commitment, competence (master skills) and focus, and courage
(credibility and honesty).5 Although many people would recognize these traits as
leadership competencies, according to Kelley, they remain paramount to the
supporting role a follower plays. This type of follower represents the essential
link between leader and follower cultures. As leaders develop and transmit the
institution’s "big picture," they naturally turn to such individuals to help
them communicate that vision to the rest of the institution. The effective
follower’s invaluable perspective permits others to separate the essential tasks
required for mission accomplishment from the minutiae. As the leader leads, the
follower actively participates in task completion toward mission accomplishment;
the leader-follower relationship produces the dynamics necessary for the team to
accomplish the mission. Those who prove able to follow effectively usually
transition to formal leadership positions over time. More than any other
measurable attribute, this phenomenon clarifies the interactive nature of the
Kelley characterizes the other three follower types (table 1) as follows:
"Sheep" are passive and uncritical, lacking in initiative and
sense of responsibility. They perform tasks given them and stop. "Yes People"
are livelier, but remain an equally unenterprising group. Dependent on a leader
for inspiration, they can be aggressively deferential, even servile. . . .
"Alienated Followers" are critical and independent in their thinking, but
fulfill their roles passively. Somehow, sometime, something "turned them off,"
prompting them to distance themselves from the organization and ownership of its
mission. Often cynical, they tend to sink gradually into disgruntled
Kelley offers an important observation with regard to some followers’
influence on some leaders, cautioning that the latter remain comfortable with—or
even embrace—the "yes people" or other less effective followers. Follower
development is a leader’s utmost responsibility. Willingness to move beyond
comfort zones is fully expected of tomorrow’s leader. Emerging security threats
demand that we do so.
Other researchers describe a somewhat similar approach to followership
studies. From this perspective, effective followers are "intent on high
performance and recognize they share the responsibility for the quality of the
relationship they have with their leaders. . . . They know they cannot be fully
effective unless they work in partnerships that require both a commitment to
high performance and a commitment to develop effective relationships with
partners (including their boss) whose collaboration is essential to success in
their own work."7 This perspective illuminates two ideal follower-competency
dimensions—"performance initiative" and "relationship initiative." Within those
dimensions are descriptors (or subscales) we could call competencies. They
suggest that the ideal follower would act like a partner in the leader-follower
Performance initiative, a commitment to the highest levels of effort, includes
• Working (effectively) with others. Followers balance personal interests with
the interests of others and discover a common purpose. They coach, lead, mentor,
and collaborate to accomplish the mission.
• Embracing change. Followers are committed to constant improvement, reduction
of all types of waste, and leading by example. They are change agents.
• Doing the job (competence). Followers know what’s expected, strive to be the
best, and derive satisfaction from applying the highest personal standards. To
them, work is integral to life.
• Seeing one’s self as a resource (appreciating one’s skills). Followers
understand their value to the organization and care for themselves as
These competencies point to team builders who "lean enthusiastically into the
future" and always strive to be the best.
Relationship initiative, which acknowledges that followers share the
responsibility with leaders for an effective relationship and work to increase
openness and understanding to increase perspective around informed choices,
includes the following:
• Building trust (core values; their word is their bond). Followers invite
honest feedback and share plans and doubts. They are reliable and earn their
• Communicating courageously (honest, timely feedback). Followers tell
unpleasant truths to serve the organization. They seek the same from others and
• Identifying with the leader. Followers are loyal to their "partner in success"
and take satisfaction in the leader’s success.
• Adopting the leader’s vision (seeing the big picture from the boss’s
perspective). Followers know the limits of personal perspective and actively
seek others’ perspectives for greater team effectiveness. They have a clear
understanding of priorities.
Combining this dimension’s competencies suggests a follower whose honest
integrity earns the leader’s confidence. This is a follower (partner) whose
loyalty creates an atmosphere wherein the team members share in the leader’s
success by adopting the organization’s vision as their very own.8
These dimensions allow us to characterize additional follower types (table 2).
The "politician" possesses interpersonal qualities that might be misdirected and
underappreciates job performance. "Subordinates" are traditional followers,
content to do whatever they are told. They might be disaffected or simply
unaware of the possibilities for greater contribution. Lastly, "contributors"
are workhorses and often a creative force. However, they could maximize their
inputs if they put energy into understanding the boss’s perspective, gained
through relationship building. It is the "partner" who blends exceptional work
performance with perspective gained from healthy relationships to both the
leadership and peer group.
If we summarize what these prominent research approaches offer followership
studies, we might characterize effective followers in these terms: individuals
with high organizational commitment who are able to function well in a
change-oriented team environment. Additionally, they are independent, critical
thinkers with highly developed integrity and competency. Thus, effective
followers exhibit loyalty to the boss by endorsing organizational vision and
priorities. A true-life example illuminates these observations and makes the
point even more effectively.
In his book American Generalship, Edgar F. Puryear Jr. interviewed Secretary of
State Colin Powell and asked him why he believed he was selected to be chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell replied,
Beats me. I worked very hard. I was very loyal to people who appointed me,
people who were under me, and my associates. I developed a reputation as
somebody you could trust. I would give you my very, very best. I would always
try to do what I thought was right and I let the chips fall where they might. .
. . It didn’t really make a difference whether I made general in terms of my
self-respect and self-esteem. I just loved being in the army.9
So the question becomes, How do we develop such individuals?
Air & Space