Attention on the net: Fletch here with your monthly report from the leadership toolbox! Last month we examined how adaptive leaders seek to bring out the best in team members, never forgetting that regardless of what a team does, it’s still made up of people who get the job done. I described this approach as a recipe for success that I have personally employed and gained the respect and admiration of teams I was fortunate to be part of. In essence, adaptive leadership is a matter of humility. It is the act of “we” not “me.”
This month, I would like to discuss “followership.” People often hear that part of becoming a good leader involves first becoming a good follower. What about when we have led a team, but then find ourselves as a follower again? How do we act as a good team member?
Professionally, I’ve found myself in this situation several times and developed some tenets for success. In the military, you often see large numbers of personnel with the same rank. Someone must be placed in charge. I often switched from leader to follower and back. It usually occurred after completing a job and returning to the main office, where I reported to another officer of the same rank. People often find this difficult, but it does not have to be.
First, remember that for a team to work, once a person gains a leadership position, we must respect their authority. As Maj. Richard Winters said in “Band of Brothers”: “We salute the rank, not the man.” This does not mean we do not give feedback or disagree with the leader. It does mean that, in the end, they make the final decision.
I witnessed this when I selected a lead driller for my team in the Air Force. I considered several sergeants — all shared the same rank, and all had trained and drilled together for a year. I selected the person who showed initiative, cared about the program, and made decisions based on informed research and a solid understanding of good basic drilling principles. Another team member constantly complained and had negative comments about the person I selected. I asked this individual two questions: (1) Have you confronted him about your concerns? (2) Are you questioning my judgement about selecting him? The individual replied no to both questions, and I recommended he return to his duties and think about that for a while.
To help you cultivate that respect, I suggest checking your ego at the door. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to join the leader, palling around at the local bar on Friday. It does mean you accept their leadership toward your shared goal of getting the job done efficiently and with positive results, so both of you can get home to do the things you find important. If you want to google the 10 rules of good followership, you can. But, I find the two critical things involve checking your ego and holstering the arrogance that you are smarter — or better — than the leader.
I recall one specific example of working under the direction of a peer with the same rank. I had served on the team for over a year and, honestly, had some issues with the leadership. These issues specifically related to leadership, not technical knowledge or anything work related. I believed challenges we experienced in the field directly resulted from a lack of leadership. I saw a lack of clear roles, responsibilities and priorities for team members.
I followed my own advice and I offered feedback on multiple occasions. I was told things would change, and tasks and priorities would be delivered more clearly. However, nothing changed and when new tasks and priorities were delivered they came with a hint of, “It’s your fault you did not recognize you should have been doing this, and now I have to tell you to do it.” Those are difficult words to swallow for someone working on a team. I continued to work hard at my job and try to understand my role and priorities. I never brought my ego or arrogance from past work or achievements to the team and I offered feedback when I had a problem with the leader.
Sometimes the answer is to leave the situation and move on to a new team. Eventually, I finished my work with this team and I and several others moved on to new opportunities. Sometimes, a leader receives feedback well and makes changes for the greater good. A team can never properly function if the followers never give the leader a chance by offering feedback when problems arise. Whether the leader chooses to make a change or stay the course is their decision. If we choose to continue to be part of the team, we should try to support the cause as much as possible.There are many ways to follow and the choice is yours when you find yourself in that role. You can be pessimistic and complain like the troop that I mentioned, or you can approach things with optimism and an open mind. I find that the latter produces the better results whether I stay on the team or not. At least if I leave, I know I offered the leader something to reflect on without hostility or aggression. Give it a try. It could be the next tool you add to your own leadership toolbox. Until next time, Fletch over and out!