No talk on leadership can begin without a thorough understanding of followership. I make this conclusion up front as I reflect on my 30-year career in the AF. Starting out as a young fighter pilot, I remember the intense emphasis the unit placed on being a good wingman. The term “wingman” is synonymous with being a follower. Everything a wingman was responsible for was directly related to supporting his flight leader and the mission objectives. After looking back over my career, I am convinced the greatest leaders I came across were also the best followers. Let me explain.
If you look up the definition of "followership" you will find numerous characteristics and skills associated with the term. Here are a few that I like the best:
1. Subject matter expert on their job; attention to detail
2. Ethical and moral character; integrity first
3. Member of a team with passion and drive for a common goal; daily excellence
4. Relationship building with peers and supervisors alike; humble and approachable
5. Loyalty to the chain of command and the mission; selfless service
To sum up the definition of a good follower in fighter pilot terms,“be on time, in formation and support your leader!”
These skills were ingrained, not only during our flying duties, but also in all facets of our lives. It became a way of life to be a good wingman. The pilots that embodied these skills the quickest were trained to become flight leaders well before their peers. It was a prestigious move “up” to the flight lead ranks. However, this upward movement affected individuals in very different ways. Some took this advancement as a right of passage to disregard the principles that brought them to the cusp of leadership.
When I look back at the most toxic units I had served in the AF, it was primarily due to poor leadership. The leader had forgotten or disregarded the skills, lessons and humble beginnings of being a follower. He had forgotten to stay in the books and pay attention to the details of the job. He had forgotten to act with integrity and excellence in everything he did. He had stopped being part of the team and became self-serving. He had disregarded developing respectful lines of communication and relationships with his peers and subordinates. He had forgotten where he came from!
On the other hand, the greatest leaders I had the privilege to serve with were exactly the opposite. Their followership skills were pursued with even greater passion at each higher level they attained. They not only knew their job but also became familiar with everyone’s responsibilities on the team. They developed robust relationships down, up and sideways in the organization. They put the team and mission first over all individual desires. But most of all, they remained humble and approachable to the most junior member of the team. They genuinely cared about everyone in the unit and their families.
After many changes of assignment, I could tell short order whether I had come into a unit with a great leader. I could tell just by interacting with the people in the unit. Through their respect and pursuit of the skills of a follower, I could tell that the unit had a solid leadership foundation and with it a great leader at the helm. My respect and admiration for those great leaders came mostly because—they never forgot where they came from.