Grow and develop through followership

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - As the Air Force has gotten progressively smaller in recent years, the process for how we grow and develop our future Air Force leaders has become extremely important. 

The topic of developing leaders is a frequent discussion point at wings, groups and squadrons across the Air Force.  However, one of the key elements of leadership development that is often overlooked is the concept of followership.  Strong followership skills are fundamental to leadership.   

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, followership is defined as “the capacity or willingness to follow a leader.”  However, the complexity and benefits of followership go way beyond its accepted definition. 

Regardless of your rank or specific role in accomplishing the Air Force’s mission, each of us juggle the roles of leadership and followership.  So, what exactly are the followership skills that are so important in today’s Air Force? 

From my perspective, there are three skills that I most value in relation to followership.  Those skills are the individual’s ability to execute their designated job or specialty, adaptability in the face of challenges and a heavy dose of resiliency.    

First and foremost, the most fundamental followership trait is learning and mastering your given job specialty. In 2016, as the squadron commander of the 5th Expeditionary Squadron in Kuwait, I was privileged to lead several rotations of aircraft maintainers and air transporters in the deployed environment.

During that year, a team of eight aircraft maintenance personnel, from the ranks of major to staff sergeant, along with a Boeing representative, identified a repetitive issue with the anti-collision lighting systems of C-17 Globemaster III aircraft traveling in and out of the area of responsibility.  The lights were returning to home station with severe cracks after traveling in and out of some of the region’s harshest airfields. 

In response to the challenge, the team developed an innovative taping solution utilizing inexpensive, clear polyurethane tape to reinforce the lights on each of the assigned C-17s.  This simple solution kept the aircraft in service and saved the Air Force hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Each of the individuals involved were some of our most skilled technicians in the unit. Their professionalism and technical expertise identified and implemented an effective and inexpensive strategy that kept the mission moving while increasing aircrew safety.  Ultimately, the mission is our No. 1 priority, thus job proficiency will always be a big part of a strong followership model.               

Another key to strong followership is adaptability. Change has been constant for the Air Force since its inception as a standalone separate service in 1947. Some of that change and evolution is due to political climate, other to technological improvements. 

Either way, our ability to adapt to change is at the heart of what makes us the world’s greatest Air Force.  To me, Viktor E. Frankl, the famous Austrian psychologist and holocaust survivor best described adaptability, when he said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Despite challenges, our Airmen continue to successfully adapt to a constrained environment.  For instance, over the last 15 years, several enlisted and officer career fields have merged or been greatly reduced in size.  Yet the mission has not wavered.  That is because individual Airmen have adapted to those circumstances and excelled. 

There are other examples as well, including joint deployments performing nontraditional duties, junior enlisted and officers fulfilling staff duties that were traditionally filled by more senior NCOs and Field Grade Officers, etc.  Bottom line: Airmen who capitalize and continually display adaptability in the face of such challenges will be the ones identified by chief enlisted managers and Commanders for future opportunities and promotion.

The last followership trait that is essential to each member of our Air Force team is resiliency.  Resiliency isn’t just the Air Force’s latest buzzword.  From the highest-ranking Four-star general, to the newest airman basic graduate from basic training, mistakes and failures will happen. 

Every leader or follower fails at one point or another. Often it is our strongest performers who push the envelope and take calculated risks to make the organization better who make the most mistakes. 

So the real question is how does the member respond when those setbacks happen?  As a squadron commander, I look for those individuals who have been humbled by challenges, whether personal or professional and responded valiantly.  Those Airmen, NCOs, officers or civilians are the ones who I know I can count on to react with poise during a crisis or future challenge.   

Developing effective followership skills such as strong job proficiency, adaptability to change and overall resiliency are critical to a stronger service and strengthened leadership.  Therefore, a renewed focus on followership fundamentals may be our best strategy moving forward in developing the future leaders of the world’s greatest Air Force.