The link between leadership, management and the organization is widely understood and accepted in the corporate world. This concept is no different in the fire service past or present. Improving leadership improves management, which in turn enhances performance. The fire service has strived for over a century to continue this quest. The flip side of leadership is followership, something that we have nearly lost the art of. Everyone seems to have all the answers without truly understanding the complexities of what is faced by the leadership.
If the flip side of leadership is followership, then it stands to reason that if leadership is important to the performance of an organization and the personnel whom make up the organization, then followership must have a critical role as well. However, I want you to think of the last time you went to a training conference or seminar and there was a topic on followership on the program. I would bet you would be hard pressed to find very many, if any. Interestingly enough, followership, being just as important as leadership gets very little publicity or even spoken about past the recruit academy.
The fire service prides itself on the ability to present many different styles of leadership. In fact leadership skills are at the top of the list of what highlights many training programs and especially at conferences. That stands to reason as we are focused on trying to prepare the next generation of leadership but it is obvious we have a critical link missing in that part of professional development, which is followership.
Followership is pretty simple and straightforward. It is the ability to take direction well, to get in line with the mission and vision of the organization, be part of the team and row the boat in the same direction instead of playing rowboat tug-a-war, and do what is expected of you at a high level consistently every day. How well the followers follow is just as important to the organization as the leadership is. Ok I know that to be labeled as an “excellent follower” verses an “excellent leader” is probably not the title first on your list. You are probably saying, “That is not how I want to be labeled at the fire house.” You most likely are thinking that is not the label I need if I am going to get promoted. In fact that is a stigma fire service personnel try to avoid, as they want their leadership to shine. Well to clear the air, fire service organizations look for good followership in their leaders and future leaders. The fact is in fire service organizations everyone is both a leader and a follower depending on the circumstances and the roll they are assuming based upon the situation.
In most cases followership takes a backseat to leadership even though it is a critical component to success. To be blunt, where followership is a failure, not much gets accomplished and / or what does get accomplished is not what was supposed to get done. Here are the hard core facts, poor followership or followership problems develop into the following; poor work ethic, bad morale, distraction from the mission and vision, unsatisfied employees and customers, many lost opportunities, individualism, turmoil in the organization, poor quality of performance and high costs due to mistakes and lack of attention to detail. Week followership and week leadership are very similar in their outcomes: poor organizational performance and organizational confusion.
Qualities of a Good Follower
- Ability to Take Direction. Followers must be able to take direction and execute with a high level of performance. This means being able to do the simple things to the complex things. Just think about it. If you cannot follow directions or a simple policy to take the trash out daily or when it needs it, how are you going to take tactical direction on a critical incident?
- Judgment. Followers must take direction but they also have to process it for the organization so they only follow direction that is ethical and proper. Often there are individuals who have tarnished their career by following direction or examples of unethical behavior, morally wrong and even illegal. The key element is having the judgment to know the difference between what is truly wrong and something you just don’t agree with. Judgment helps distinguish these areas as just because you may not agree with something does not mean you should not do it. Basically you don’t have to always agree but good followers execute. The difference here with not liking something and it being wrong is simple. If it is immoral, unethical, illegal or going to harm someone then you should be using judgment of maybe not following. Here good judgment for the follower is just as critical as it is for the leader.
- Work Ethic. Good followers are known as good workers, someone you depend on and even considered a go to person. If you are a good worker in the fire service then you are probably characterized as hard working, motivated, loyal, committed, attentive to detail, inspired, diligent and a get it done type. Great organizations and leaders must create an environment that allows these qualities. Keep in mind that even though leaders and organizations must create this environment you and only you have the responsibility to be a good worker. It is a fact that a good follower cannot be a bad worker. The chemistry just does not mix.
- Competence. No matter how good a worker you are or how well you follow direction, you cannot be a good follower unless you are competent at the task that was directed by the leader. It is imperative that the leader assures the follower is competent. When there is not competence in the follower bad things can happen in the fire service up to and including death.
- Honesty. I am sure everyone has heard that honesty is the best policy. I have often stated that I will tell you what you need to hear not what you want to hear in previous articles on leadership. Well the same philosophy applies to followership. As a follower you have an obligation to the leader to be honest. This is honesty on everything especially regarding what is trying to be accomplished. One critical area is when the follower feels the leader’s agenda; plan or process is seriously flawed. This is often related to scene operations or situations on complex scenes where the follower may see something the leaders may not. It is critical when doing this to be respectful to the leader. Good leaders appreciate quality and constructive feedback from their team.
- Courage. In the previous five qualities, especially honesty, courage is required. As number 5 states, followers need to be honest with those who lead, which requires courage to do this. It takes real courage to have moral fortitude, recognize deficiencies in competence, and have strong work ethic when others around you do not. In the words of Winston Churchill called courage “the foremost of the virtues, for upon it, all others depend”. In today’s fire service and in many organizations it takes real courage to be a good follower. That courage to be a good follower often places you outside the majority. However organizations do not reach their potential unless there is courage for the followers and the leaders to be one team.
- Discretion. Often times we speak without thinking about topics we should not and without all the facts. Followers owe their leaders and organizations discretion. Talking about work matters inappropriately is at best unhelpful and predominantly harmful to the organization and your reputation and honor. Nothing good comes from speaking bad or down grading the organization. Bluntly speaking you cannot be indiscreet and be a good follower much less a good leader. Often times it is important to remember that to be discreet you have to keep your month shut.
- Loyalty. Known as a strong since of allegiance and commitment to a person, group of people and/or an organization. This has been one of the topics that seems to be discussed at most every leadership conference I have attended for the past 5 years. Basically the comments go like this: We don’t have people who are loyal to the department, they jump at anything that looks greener on the other side, The term the quarter guys come up meaning if they are paying $.25 more an hour we jump over there which creates a bidding war. It is fact that good followers respect their obligation to be loyal to the organization. Loyalty to the organization and its vision, mission and goals is especially important when there are problems particularly when they are from transition, growth and metamorphic change. Followers who are not loyal and practice honesty and discretion are inevitably a source of difficulty for the organization and other followers. This lack of loyalty can cause major issues between team members, the team and impact all aspects of the organization’s mission, vision and goals. Followers should remember that their obligation is to the organization and not a specific leader.
- Control of ego. We know everyone has an ego. The ego is not the problem. The problem is the lack of control or an individual’s ability to control their ego. Good followers have their egos under control. With this said their primary focus is on the common good of the organization. It is critical to remember that the organization is made up of individuals, each whom are a critical part of the most valuable resource, the members of the organization. Having your ego in check means that you have developed some of the most critical interpersonal skills that are required to be a good leader. But to be a good leader you must be a good follower. Success for good followers relates to the goal achievement and performance of the organization not self-promotion.
- Effective communicator. A good follower has communications that are accurate, timely and well thought out. Usually we do not think of good followers as someone who speaks up, but being open, offering opinions and persuading are also quality characteristics of good followers who communicate effectively.
- Engaged. As a follower you cannot just sit back and keep your head down. A good follower is energetic, takes initiative, participates and is an opportunist ceasing opportunities as they present themselves.
- Flexible. In the fire service today and in most fire service organizations the ability to be flexible is critical as a leader. Now with that being said if it is critical for a leader to be flexible if must be important for good followers to be adaptable and capable of managing change in an ever dynamic evolving environment.
Currently followership is strongly overshadowed by leadership in our current fire service. However to reboot old school principles that were taught to me many years ago, followership was a key element to the success of the fire service. You must remember that there are no leaders without followers. Continued success with weak followers will be elusive. Without followers leadership is dead. We frequently state that the organization is only as good as it’s leaders. How true this is, but lets examine the flip side of this… the organization is only as good as its followers. Followers are the most valuable resource when it comes to getting the job done.
Morale here is that to be a good leader you have to be a good follower. What we are missing in many fire service organizations is good followership.