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Followership: the other half of leadership

Lt. Col. Paul Scholl, 50th Mission Support Group deputy commander

Lt. Col. Paul Scholl, 50th Mission Support Group deputy commander

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- "Sometimes when you're riding ahead of the herd, you need to turn around and make sure they're still there." It's an old cowboy philosophy, and it holds true regarding any leadership situation. Leaders and followers are the two components required in any leadership situation. One without the other is non-productive at best and dangerous at worst. 

Followership is neither the constant demand for someone to answer "why" nor is it the development of yes-people and groupthink. Part of good followership is contributing to the situation through critical thinking and asking well-thought-out questions designed to improve planning and prevent failure. 

Good leaders should develop good followers for two reasons. First, good followers provide greater insight and therefore, greater development in planning, through the use of follower's talents, experience and knowledge. Secondly, as Thomas Jefferson noted, "Before you can lead, you have to learn to follow." Good followers become good leaders and continue the cycle. Good followers contribute to the organization and mission and look for ways to improve. 

There are times in which an in-depth analysis and discussion of the situation is not possible based on the urgency of the situation. In these cases, the follower should ask if the order or plan is illegal, unethical or immoral. If the answer to these three questions is no, then a good follower responds by carrying out the orders or executing the plan. 

In most other situations, the leader should explain the background of the situation and allow for feedback since, according to R. E. Kelly, a management and leadership author, the leader contributes only 20 percent to the situation. Followers contribute the remaining 80 percent and are more involved in the actual development and execution of the plan. Failure to develop the people who accomplish the majority of the mission is planning to fail. 

Given that good followers in one situation can instantly become leaders in the same or another situation, there should be no reason why any military member should accept the development of a poor follower. The combination of good leaders and good followers are required in order to accomplish the mission. Without followers, leaders are simply out taking a walk.