Learning to follow in order to lead

  • Published
  • By Col. Sidney Martin
  • 127th Medical Group Commander
I was afforded the opportunity to speak to the satellite Airmen's Leadership School here at Selfridge a few weeks ago and I chose an unusual topic for a leadership class. I chose to talk to them about followership.

It is interesting that many of the spell checkers on your computers will kick that word out as did mine until it learned that was the word I was after. Why do you think I would have talked about followership at a leadership school?

In my opinion the first step toward leadership is followership. One must learn to be a good follower before they can lead. Many hear the word follower and in a way it seems to carry a derogatory tone. This whole concept is one I find interesting and completely wrong minded. Just as one can be both father and son at the same time, all of us must learn to be leaders and followers at the same time.

I would like to recount a story for you about the first American Officer killed on D-Day and see if it changes your mind about followers.

Lt. Robert Mathias was the leader of the second platoon, E Company, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. He was in a C-47 over the Cotentin Peninsula of Normandy on the night of June 5-6, 1944. At a little past midnight the red light beside him in the open doorway went on. That was the signal for the men to get ready. He gave the order to hook up and stood in the doorway prepared to be the first to jump when the light turned green. In that instant a flak shell burst in the doorway and ripped through his reserve chute tearing into his chest and knocking him away from the door and off of his feet. After two years of Army training he had been in superb condition which made it possible for him to stand back up after such a crippling blow and resume his position in the door. He also had enough strength to push himself back out of the way so his men could get by and jump without him. If he had done this perhaps he could have made it back to England with the airplane and its crew, who survived the night. Maybe he could have undergone a life saving operation and lived a long happy life.

However, Mathias resumed his position in the door and prepared to hurl himself out and into the night. In the next instant the light turned green, he turned raised his right arm signaled and shouted to his men, "Follow me," and jumped. His lifeless body was found about a half an hour later still harnessed in his parachute. Lt. Robert Mason Mathias was the first American officer killed by German fire on D-Day.

I recounted that story to the ALS class and then asked them, "What do you think his men did?"

One of the students fell for my bait and answered, "They jumped."

My answer to the Airman was no. What those men did was win World War II. In order to do that, however, they had to follow Lt. Mathias out that door.

What was Mathias' soldiers' response to his leadership? They did something; they acted. Just like leadership, followership is not passive. Followership is an active process.

Why would we even bother to teach followership in the military? Aren't we all natural born leaders? First off, at least in my opinion, there is no such thing. Good leaders have all learned from the leaders they followed; both good and bad.
The first reason, therefore, to teach followership is to grow the next generation of leaders. That is not and should not be the only reason though.

Air Force Lt. Cols. Sharon M. Latour and Vicki J. Rast, wrote an outstanding article on just this subject, first published in the 2004 issue of Air & Space Power Journal, titled "Dynamic Followership, The Prerequisite for Effective Leadership." In their writing they make an argument for teaching followership for its own sake and for the benefit of the entire organization. This is an outstanding article and I encourage all of you to Google it and read it.

The key to it all is effective mentorship. Leadership and followership are inextricably intertwined. You cannot have one without the other because we all simultaneously both leader and follower. Both attributes can be taught and can be learned and the most effective teacher in this case is a mentor. I want you all to list the attributes of a good leader and then list the attributes of a good follower. The lists are unsurprisingly similar.

Want to lead? Learn to follow.