• Dr. Timothy X. Merritt

Followership for the Infantry? - Part 3


Jungle Expert diploma signifies Team Leadership and Followership.
The relationships between military leaders and followers have been forged in the crucible of blood and fire.

Is Teaching Followership Worthwhile?

It’s been a long journey for me from my first true experience with leadership to my current assignment at an NCO Academy designing scenarios that will somehow train the next generation of warfighters to fight, survive and win under any conditions anywhere in the world. What, if anything, do these soldiers need to know about followership? Dr. Todd Foley from the University of Cincinnati asks what the outcomes would be if we taught students how to be effective followers rather than effective leaders. His belief is that by infusing more strategies to develop effective followers, trainers could enhance leader’s abilities as well, making them more effective. Chaleff argues against this concept because it seems highly un-American and does not appear to resonate with people. Thus there is an ongoing debate about the value of teaching followership, represented on one hand by an industrial paradigm that is often viewed in terms of a transactional relationship between leaders and followers and a postindustrial paradigm that views both leaders and followers as members of a dyad participating in a transformational relationship on what is essentially an equal footing and thus deserving of equal status.


Preparing the Millennial Generation for the Infantry

The post-industrial, transformational style of relationships between leaders and followers seems to appeal to the millennial generation whose members are now finding their way into the ranks of the military. Mike LaFeve, who spent three years at the end of his career developing millennial service members into officers offers four tips for anyone charged with teaching the so-called “unmanageable generation”; First, work hard to get past the perception gap and realize that the notion that the current generation is lazy and entitled is a stereotype. LaFeve believes that there are enduring principles of motivation for military service and that the millennials who join the military feel the same motivations as earlier generations. Second, LaFeve recommends viewing millennials as individuals and separately from the environment in which they were raised. Third, millennials should be offered competitive opportunities to advance and then judge the individuals on merit. In the era of "everyone gets a trophy," he contends that this generation is hungry for ways they can separate themselves from their peers. Finally, LaFeve advises trainers to see the good qualities of millennials, they are technologically advanced, innovative and creative; any of these qualities may be essential for fighting the next war.


Tying it all Together

If the future of American warfare indeed results in a conflict with a near peer adversary, an academic debate on the importance of teaching followership may well be moot. The relationships between military leaders and followers have been forged in the crucible of blood and fire from countless life and death struggles. Military training institutions have assumed the role of capturing these hard-won lessons and transmitting them to the next generation in an effort to prepare young Americans for the hardships that will inevitably be visited upon them.


That summer in Panama at the Jungle Warfare School marked a powerful transition in my personal leadership approach. Our squad became lost during the land navigation course and all of us began to argue about what to do. Despite my feelings of inexperience and inadequacy, I made it clear that I was in charge and that the squad would obey my orders and follow my plan. To my amazement, they all did; and we were able to successfully complete the land navigation exercise, arriving just barely within the time limit. I understand now that I could never have led that team successfully if those team members had not practiced effective followership. If Infantry training institutions were to accept a more explicit approach to the study and teaching of followership principles, we may come to recognize that followership has always been a major component of military training, and that the followership principles we already teach may be of great value to scholars, to modern businesses, and perhaps even to the people the Infantry interact with around the world.


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