If all are leading, then who will follow?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kirby Hunolt
  • 82nd Airlift Wing chief of safety
Editor's note: This commentary was recommended by an Airlifter reader. It was written by (now retired) Colonel Hunolt for the base newspaper at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in 1997.

I can see it now -- an Air Force supervisor surrounded by monks in their Tibetan monastery, hundreds of candles providing the only light. The head monk asks the GI a question:

"My son, you must choose between training your people to be good leaders or good followers. Which will it be?"

"I choose good leaders, Master, for that is the way of the military."

"Ah, Grasshopper, but if all are leading, who will follow?"

"Uhh ... Did I say good leaders? I meant good followers."

"You have chosen well, my son."

"But, Master, would it not be time consuming and expensive to train people in such skills?"

"Perhaps, my son, but if you think training is expensive, just try ignorance."

I think we set some of our folks up for failure by pushing them to be leaders before they've mastered the art of followership. Some people will never be anyone's boss, but we will always be someone's subordinate. Experience is our only teacher in the art of followership and that can be a painful process for boss and follower alike.

While it's obvious you must know the technical aspects of your job, there are also numerous unwritten, yet expected performance and behavior factors required to be a good follower. Most bosses don't take time to train you on these things, but they expect you to do them. Here are questions I've learned to ask when evaluating my followership performance:

Do I put myself in my boss's position?

Understand what your boss's boss expects of him. Look at the pressures and constraints he's under, and then anticipate his needs. What questions is he likely to ask? What information does he need to make an educated decision?

Do I do my job correctly and on time?

Thoroughly research your assigned task. Know what could go wrong and have a backup plan. If unforeseen problems will prevent you from meeting a suspense, tell your boss right away; don't wait until the day it is due. Don't ever miss a suspense because you "forgot" -- write it down.

When I mess up, do I make excuses?

Accept responsibility and show sincere concern and regret when you do something wrong. It's bad enough to mess up, but to take it lightly or not accept responsibility is a mistake.

Do I look and act professional?

Sharp salutes, plenty of "Yes sirs," neat uniforms, etc., all send the signal you're striving for excellence. Chewing gum, keeping a sloppy work area, leaning on your boss's desk, failing to stand when a superior addresses you and the link, do not portray a professional image.

Do I do quality work and fix obvious errors so my boss doesn't have to?

Sloppy or incomplete work is unacceptable. If it's paperwork, fix typos, spelling or format errors, etc., before sending it forward. If you're working on a plane, use your checklist to ensure nothing's missed. A boss has better things to do than correct "errors of laziness."

Am I a minimalist?

Show initiative. Do more than the minimum; seek out things that need to be done. Look for ways to improve the operation. Minimalists are fond of saying "That's not my job." You know you're dealing with a minimalist if he answers your question with "I don't know" instead of "I don't know, but let me find out for you."

Am I punctual?

A boss typically has more demands on his time than we have; that comes with the added responsibility of being a supervisor. Respect his schedule. Don't be on time -- be early.

Am I productive at work?

That's why they call it "work." Keep your socializing to a minimum.

Do I procrastinate?

You can always find a reason to delay getting the job done, but that doesn't improve your operation. Establish priorities and don't let the "urgent" tasks prevent you from doing the "important" ones.

Do I keep my boss informed?

There are several parts to this one. First, don't let him get blindsided -- bosses hate surprises. Make sure he knows everything affecting his operation before someone above him or outside the organization asks about it. Second, keep him posted on your progress toward completing assigned tasks or other contributions to the organization. Finally, bad news doesn't get better with time. Don't wait to pass along news that will embarrass him or you, or get either of you in trouble. Delay will only magnify the problem. Besides, he needs time to plan a defense before he tells his boss.

Am I loyal to my boss?

Most bosses value loyalty more than expertise. Do the right thing for your boss, even if it inconveniences you personally. Support what he supports. Don't criticize him or sit still for anyone who does. Protect him and he'll protect you.

Do I support my boss's decisions?

If you disagree with a decision, many bosses allow you an opportunity to explain why you disagree. After that, the boss accepts the burden of responsibility and expects your support. The decision's made, now it's your job to implement it.

Do I maintain confidentiality?

Recognize when a boss is entrusting you with "close hold" information, whether official or personal. Also, don't discuss unit problems with outsiders. It's none of their business and it just damage's your unit's image.

Do I display a poor attitude? Am I a team player?

If you don't like your job or the "system" don't let that color your attitude on the job or affect your performance. If you don't get along with your coworkers, you're a drain on unit morale and a roadblock to productivity.

Have I developed a sense of timing?

Know when it's appropriate to approach the boss. What's his mood today? A bad day may cause him to make a poor decision -- one that he normally wouldn't make. Is what you want important enough to interrupt what he's doing? Can you really fit your discussion in the time he's got available?

Do I use my boss's time wisely?

While the previous item dealt with knowing when to use your boss's time, this one concerns how to use that time once you're in his office. Don't bother him with details of things that have no impact, or that you have the authority to act on. Be organized, concise and prepared to answer all questions.

Do I get all the facts? Do I overreact?

Know all the facts before selecting a course of action or charging into your boss's office to tell him about a problem. Most of us ascribe more importance to our issues than they're worth. Don't scream "the sky is falling!" if it's only the ceiling -- it wastes energy and gets everyone excited for nothing.

In the end, how well you do these things will determine the answers to two questions any boss asks himself when evaluating your performance: "What has this person done to make my organization better?" and "Has this person made my job easier, or more difficult? Of course, doing your everyday job is still the best thing you can do for your boss. If he has to worry about your job, you've crossed over the line from asset to liability.