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Commentary: Leading sometimes means following

  • Published
  • By Col. Kelly Fletcher
  • 18th Mission Support Group commander
Much has been written recently about our Air Force, particularly our leadership, values, and dedication to the mission. With all the discussion, it raises the question: "What are some of the attributes and ideas that tie leadership, values, and dedication together?" 

One can read numerous books, review multiple lists of character traits, and every leadership expert's "how-to" guide, to define, clarify and improve organizational and personal leadership. However, focusing only on leadership and how it influences our values and dedication ignores a vital part of the total equation. What is missing is followership. 

To be a good leader you must also be a good follower. No matter where you fit into the chain of command, you are a follower at some time. The foundations for good leadership and followership are embedded in our Core Values of Integrity, Service and Excellence as well as in the principle of Loyalty -- to your comrades and to your chain of command. 

United States Air Force Core Values, 1 Jan 97, better known as "The Little Blue Book", discusses the concepts of Integrity First, Service before Self and Excellence in all we do in depth. These principles are the basic character traits we deem essential for personal and institutional values. They define what sets our Airmen and Air Force apart as a service. They set the standards that we hold ourselves accountable to, and they are what our nation expects from us. 

Former Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall said it best in "The Little Blue Book": "They are the values that instill confidence, earn lasting respect, and create willing followers...they are the three pillars of professionalism that provide the foundation for military leadership at every level."

While the core values create the conditions necessary for good followership and effective leadership, I contend that the principle of loyalty overshadows all others and builds a bridge that binds leaders and followers together. As defined by the New World Dictionary of the American Language, loyalty is "a quality, state, or instance of being loyal; faithfulness or faithful adherence to a person, government, cause, duty." The principle of loyalty underscores our entire military profession, from our oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, to our loyalty to support our chain of command, to the loyalty we have to our units, all the way down to the loyalty we show to individual Airmen. 

With our core values setting the standards that we strive to achieve daily and loyalty binding us together in our military profession, the final piece needed to support our chain of command and be good followers is an action plan. Several years ago, I came across an article, "The Ten Rules of Good Followership" by Col. Phillip S. Melinger that provides just such an action plan. I would argue that you could replace the word "followership" with "leadership," or even "loyalty." Colonel Melinger's ten rules build on our core values, emphasize the principle of loyalty within the military profession, and give actionable steps to create good followers, and leaders. His rules are: 

1. Don't blame your boss for an unpopular decision or policy; your job is to support, not undermine.
2. Fight with your boss if necessary; but do it in private, avoid embarrassing situations, and never reveal to others what was discussed.
3. Make the decision, then run it past the boss; use your initiative.
4. Accept responsibility whenever it is offered.
5. Tell the truth and don't quibble, your boss will be giving advice up the chain of command based on what you said.
6. Do your homework; give your boss all the information needed to make a decision; anticipate possible questions.
7. When making a recommendation, remember who will probably have to implement it. This means you must know your own limitations and weaknesses as well as your strengths.
8. Keep your boss informed of what's going on in the unit, people will be reluctant to tell him or her their problems and successes. You should do it for them, and assume someone else will tell the boss about yours.
9. If you see a problem, fix it. Don't worry about who would have gotten the blame or who now gets the praise.
10. Put in more than an honest day's work, but don't ever forget the needs of your family. If they are unhappy, you will be too, and your job performance will suffer accordingly.

Our Air Force Core Values and our loyalty to the mission, to our chain of command and to our fellow Airmen are what make our military profession special. These traits also help produce good leaders, and just as important, good followers. After all, leaders can't lead if there's no one there to follow. Are you a good follower?