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Followership for the Infantry? - Part 2

Soldiers in formation represents Followership.
A major part of a soldier’s time is spent as a Follower, the majority of soldiers are Followers.

Leadership and Followership

BG Donahue’s statement illustrates what may be an important bias towards leadership that is held by most military cultures and especially in aggressive military cultures like the Infantry. Being a follower often connotes weakness and can be viewed as a passive or submissive role. No one wants to be considered just a follower and everyone wants to be a leader. However, emerging research on effective followership is demonstrating something that should have been evident all along; that leadership and followership are two sides of the same process. Some other aspects of followership that are easily observed but seldom discussed are that a major part of a soldier’s time is spent as a follower, the majority of soldiers are followers, and approximately 80% of the work is executed by followers. In fact, it is followership that dominates our lives in the military, but not our thinking.

There are many definitions of leadership, but what is the definition of followership? What are followers expected to do? As it turns out, quite a bit. In 1995, Ira Chaleff proposed that the follower does not draw power from the leader, but rather that both leaders and followers draw power from the organization’s purpose. His five-dimensional definition of the “Courageous Follower” should be of particular interest to military planners and trainers at the Infantry school:

  1. Followers assume responsibility when they recognize that as members of the organization they share responsibility for its success.

  2. Followers serve others by supporting leaders and helping them to lead well. They are not afraid of the hard work required to serve a leader.

  3. Followers challenge leader’s actions when they are wrong. They are willing to stand up, risk rejection and initiate conflict in order to examine the actions of a leader when appropriate.

  4. Followers participate in transformation when they recognize behavior that jeopardizes the organization’s common purpose.

  5. Followers take moral action which involves taking action and doing what is right, even in the face of danger. They have their own power to refuse an order, appeal an order to a higher authority or in some instances, resign from their position.

Army Methods for Teaching Followership

Most readers will recognize many of these concepts as standard military fare. From the first day of Basic Training new recruits are put through a series of stressful situations designed to compel the recruit to place the unit and the unit’s mission above their own personal self-interests. Hard lessons learned in combat have been translated to the training strategies of our military schoolhouses resulting in the stereotype of a Drill Sergeant standing in front of a formation of terrified recruits alternately yelling at them or dropping them for physical conditioning exercises.

The output from our military schools is millions of trained followers who are capable of performing the work their leaders require of them under the most austere and dangerous situations. After that, through a combination of personal experiences, mentorship, and continuing professional military education, the young soldier eventually earns a formal position of leadership as a noncommissioned officer, just as I had done when I attended the Jungle Warfare Course. This transition from follower to leader is captured most profoundly in the NCO creed which lists many of the same principles of followership that Chaleff outlined, yet it begins; “No one is more professional than I. I am a noncommissioned officer, a leader of Soldiers.” The NCO creed illustrates a profound understanding that all leaders are followers first. This is what my mentor was trying to explain to me; that to be a good leader, you must first be a good follower. The NCO Creed even captures the fact that once a person becomes a leader, they are still followers as well; “Officers of my unit will have maximum time to accomplish their duties; they will not have to accomplish mine.” If outstanding leadership is the fruit of our training efforts, outstanding followership is the tree on which that fruit ripens.

Importance of Considering Followership

The Army is extremely familiar with these concepts, but they just happen to group them into a generic category labeled “leadership”. You can find dozens of manuals and Army regulations about leadership, but no official guidance on followership. One may wonder what difference it makes. Why label one set of behaviors as “leadership” and another set of behaviors as “followership” when they are clearly overlapping and intertwined aspects of the same process?

The most basic answer to that question is that since the Army is in the business of producing “leaders” we ought to understand it and communicate it in the most accurate possible manner. In fact, the Army is not in the business of producing leaders. We are in the business of generating all of the forces necessary to fight and win this nation’s wars; both leaders and followers and all that entails.

Another compelling reason for including the distinction between leadership and followership comes from MAJ Corbin Copeland who argued in his Master’s thesis for the Command and General Staff College that there is a dark and insidious relationship between leadership failures and “toxic followership.” By exploring the case studies of the massacre at My Lai, the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the rape and murder of a family by soldiers of the Black Hearts Brigade he concludes that if the follower relationship is not clearly understood then the Army would lose the ability to train soldiers to prevent such atrocities even when they are “just” a follower in the unit. This agrees with Chaleff’s notion of the duties of a courageous follower.


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