According to the Army People Strategy, the Army’s center of gravity is its people, and leaders must commit to innovation and thoughtful leadership. As military leaders progress and lead throughout their careers at different levels within the military, they often learn about leadership in professional development courses and on-the-job experiences.
Leaders also learn about management based on their requirements to oversee completion of important workplace projects. However, they may not be provided training on how being a better follower is critical to successful leadership and how to better lead and manage followers. They also may not be accustomed to interacting with a civilian workforce, where the concept of this is different.
Most of their experiences come from leading soldiers, where subordinates are often forced to do tasks using positional power because the leaders outrank them based on paygrade and position.
In order to be a well-rounded leader, military leaders must know how to be better followers and know how to best lead and manage followers. If there are leaders and managers, there must be followers.
To best articulate the dynamics between the leader, manager and follower, let’s define what these words mean, based on their roles and the processes:
- Follower: A person who accepts guidance, command or leadership to assist in achieving goals and accomplishing tasks.
- Manager: A person charged with impersonally enabling task execution or subsets of an organization.
- Leader: Anyone who by virtue of assumed role or assigned responsibility inspires and influences people by providing purpose.
- Followership: A reciprocal process of leadership. This term refers to the capacity or willingness to follow within a team or organization.
- Management: An impersonal functioning process that controls and synchronizes internal structures, processes, procedures and systems.
- Leadership: The activity of influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.
Power and Influence
A follower is a person who accepts guidance, command or leadership to assist in achieving goals and accomplishing tasks. Followership is a reciprocal process of leadership that refers to the willingness to follow within a team or organization. The follower accepts their role in followership based on two types of power from the leader or manager: positional power and personal power. Without power, there is no influence.
Leaders or managers use two types of power: positional power and personal power. Managers use more of the positional power, while leaders use more personal power.
Positional power is based on appointment, office held and hierarchical placement. Usually, managers have this positional power. They get things done based on compliance and resistance. They use expert, referent and information power to apply soft application through ingratiation, peer pressure, personal appeal, inspirational appeal, participation, consultation and coalition.
There is personal power based on charisma, knowledge, experience and performance. Usually, leaders have this personal power. They get things done based on engagement and commitment with the follower. Positional power, on the other hand, is based on legitimate reward information and coercive power that uses hard application through punishment pressure, legitimate requests, imposed stress and direct oversight.
Know Your People
In the Army’s This is My Squad initiative, its major component is found in Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston’s message: We must understand the people around us. In order to be a better follower, individuals must understand and realize the influence and power of their leaders and managers. Being a better follower means being proactive and knowing how and what leaders and managers need to lead. This means anticipating future organizational needs and ensuring you are supporting leaders’ and managers’ support or information requirements. Being a better follower is also a form of so-called servant leadership.
Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term “servant leadership” and is the founder of the modern servant leadership movement and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, said true leaders are chosen by their followers. Servant leadership is understanding the needs of others, up and down a chain in the organization, being available at the right level and being mentally prepared to serve all others. Servant leaders exist at all levels, but one must be able to follow first. The better a follower can anticipate a need, before it is even asked, the more successful that leader and led relationship remains.
Being a great follower is having appropriate situational awareness of priorities and how to best support those efforts. The follower must be able to collaborate and have the ability to maintain good relationships with others up and down the leadership chain.
Strategist, management consultant, executive coach and international speaker Terina Allen’s November 2018 article in Fast Company, “Want to be a good leader? Learn to follow,” states that followership is a key component to leadership and that followers are not inferior to leaders. The article also notes that we do not give enough credit to those who have excelled in followership. It also states that the best followers make the best leaders because they view others as equals, teach others as humans with similar struggles and shortcomings, and value everyone’s contributions to achieve goals.
Follower to Leader
In the long run, being a better follower will help everyone be better leaders and managers. Individuals can take their experiences as followers to optimize their leadership and managerial roles.
To that end, military leaders must know how to develop followers. The concept of transformational leadership described by leadership and organizational behavior scholar Bernard Bass in 1985 provides insight into how to develop followers. In his book Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations, Bass outlined the four I’s: idealized influence, intellectual stimulation, individualized consideration and inspirational motivation. The four I’s can be used in developing and empowering followers to also become leaders. Everyone can be improved as a follower, and to optimize having the best followers, organizations must engage in follower development. This is in line with the Army Talent Management initiatives nested in the Army People Strategy.
According to author and researcher Tom Rath and leadership consultant Barry Conchie in their 2009 book, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow, followers have four basic needs: trust, compassion, stability and hope. There must be a basic level of trust between the leader and the follower, and the best way to build this trust is to be candid even when delivering difficult news. Compassion is based on the leader truly caring for their followers. This requires being genuinely concerned for the well-being of followers and assuming responsibility for them. Stability can be improved by leaders providing a solid foundation and knowing their followers’ core values. This equates to followers feeling secure about their position. Hope is how the leader has the ability to instill enthusiasm about the future for their followers.
Military leaders are often taught how to become better leaders and managers; absent is the discussion about the importance of effective followership and how to be better followers. It is important for leaders to foster a sense of responsibility of how to be a better follower in order to improve the follower’s leadership and management skills as well. Leaders need to self-reflect on how they can improve on being a follower and how they can support their leaders and managers.
The best followers understand how their leader makes decisions, are aware of critical challenges their leader faces and have a complete set of personal leadership skills that enable confident responses to what that leader or organization needs. A critical part of being a good follower is practicing servant leadership. When acting with the intent to serve others, natural followership emerges and further builds the organizational team at every level.
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Lt. Col. Amelia Duran-Stanton is chief of the Ready and Resilient Integration Branch and deputy surgeon at Headquarters, U.S. Army Installation Management Command, Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. She has deployed to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. She holds a doctor of philosophy degree in postsecondary/adult education and a doctor of science degree in physician assistant studies (orthopedics).
Col. Alicia “Ali” Masson is commander of the U.S. Army Environmental Command stationed with Headquarters, U.S. Army Installation Management Command. She has deployed to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.