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Overcoming failures of followership

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The Air Force invests a substantial amount of time and effort developing and nurturing its leaders through countless courses, but with the rank structure of the military shaped like a pyramid -- where there are far more followers than leaders -- what emphasis is placed on followership? Leadership scholars have said that organizations succeed or fail not only because of how well they are led, but because of how well followers follow.

Just as not all managers are good leaders, not all subordinates are good followers. In his book "On Leadership," John William Gardner notes that the failures of followership include: apathy, passivity, cynicism and noninvolvement. Apathy is defined as a lack of interest or concern. Passivity is the trait of being inactive or lacking initiative. Cynicism is an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity. Noninvolvement is failure or refusal to get involved.

Robert E. Kelley defines four qualities of effective followers in his article "In Praise of Followers." Kelley writes that effective followers manage themselves well; are committed to values and organizational purpose; build competencies and focus their efforts for growth and learning; and are courageous, take risks, are honest and are credible.

We currently serve in a military that has been engaged in the War on Terror for almost six years and is constantly asked to do more with less. It is easy to fall into the traps of failed followership described by Mr. Gardner. Every day is a new opportunity to change. If you have found yourself in a rut, I challenge you to take a break and recommit yourself to the qualities of an effective follower. If you remain in the Air Force long enough, you will eventually find yourself in a leadership position and you will certainly expect and appreciate the support of good followers.