Ronal Regan once said, “surround yourself with great people, delegate authority and get out of the way” is easy to say but may be difficult to accomplish especially if you don’t have capable followers.
Followership is a unique skill set in all of industry and for many of the current fire service leaders, there was a point in time, quite possibly through your whole career you were an amazing follower learning, listening and supporting the long term direction of your fire department and its current leadership waiting for your opportunity to assume the leadership role.
Think of the great leaders around the world from Gandhi to Mandela; Lincoln to Churchill; MLKing to Roosevelt. In our Fire and EMS world, James Page to Brunacini, Dunn to Brannigan, Halton to ------- you get it, right?
There are many great leaders in our society and our lifetimes as well as horrible leaders that influence our personal lives, changed world events, brought change in a positive or destructive way and if we are students of history and life, we learned from each and every one of them developing our ability to manage our fire departments in the microcosm of our fire service society.
In my own personal trip through the fire service over 32 years, I worked for 5 fire chiefs each with a unique leadership personality we are accustomed to seeing in the workforce. Some of the leadership behaviors have been described as Visionary, Autocratic, Empathetic, Absent, Servant and Progressive. Yes I kept my eyes and ears open learning from each of them as I was a good follower.
Every fire chief needs solid competent followership in order to be successful. Imagine if you were a band leader without a band. Pretty silent right? A trapeze artist without a catcher? Splat, right? So a fire chief needs a great followership in order to make the department successful and to teach the next generation of firefighters successful leadership skills.
One may ask, isn’t followership a mindless sheep following a leader? You could characterize it that way, but the meaning of followership is active participation in the direction and the success of the organization. Yes, Chiefs need to delegate almost everything down to the firefighters. See my article, “Leading from the Bottom Up” https://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1219672... to gain an understanding that all of the work originates from the firefighters with input from both the top and the bottom.
In my own experience as a Chief Officer in the fire service and as a follower, I have learned that delegation, listening, encouraging, coaching and sometimes handholding has ensured the success of the organization and the creation of the next generation of leaders.
We focus too much on leadership and not enough on followership as it is important to the performance of the organization. The concept of followership is not that difficult. It’s the ability to listen and take direction; competency in accomplishing to tasks and deliver on your promise to get it done. The reality is that you are both a leader and a follower but for now, you are in the follower mode and success really depends on you. In my experience, a robust followership actually enhances the leadership of the organization. In other words you can make the Chief “look good” by your performance. Weak followers and weak leadership is the downfall of most unsuccessful organizations.
Followers have the following characteristics. First, a great work ethic. Diligence, detail oriented, great time managers and interactive with others are some of the traits of firefighters with a good work ethic.
Next is competence. Competence is a learned skill from time observing others, doing the hands on work and asking questions of those more knowledgeable on how to successfully complete a task or project. Nobody fights a complicated structure the first day in recruit school. Competency is learned over time with a great deal of experience and making mistakes.
Next is honesty and courage. The ability to offer and honest opinion to the leader and the courage to make that happen are two valuable traits. There are some societies that the “Captain” of the airliner for example has an unassailable position as the Chief Officer. Many an airplane has crashed when the “Captain” makes the wrong decision even though the remainder of the crew know it is not the right decision. They have been trained not to question the “Captain’s” judgment and the plane crashes. Firefighters who are not honest and do not have the courage to approach the leadership is failing the department and its goals.
The next followership trait is discretion. Discretion is described as the quality of behaving or speaking in such a way as to avoid causing offense or revealing private information. There are many decisions made behind closed doors affecting the direction of the fire department which involves lively and robust discussion. Feathers get ruffled and feelings hurt. Discretion is the ability leave those feelings behind and move forward with the decision of the many and not of the few. In other words, keep your mouth closed and ensure the success of the organization.
Loyalty is an important component of great followership and in its essence is a strong allegiance and commitment to what the organization is trying to do. Followers should remember that their obligation is to the department and not to the leader at a given point in time.
Finally is ego management. We all want to be the Chief, but in any organization there is only “one Chief” and at this moment in time and it may not be you. Followers are team players and share in the good and the bad outcomes; have good interpersonal skills and will share in the accomplishments and the failures of any program or assignment given to them. One cannot blame others for mistakes you may have made and one thing that I learned that if it is my error, I "I" and only "I" own it. Success should be always shared with others on your team, and the lessons learned in both failures and successes only strengthen followers as well as leaders.
Remember that you as followers, are always in the shadow of the Chief remembering that “we” is a powerful followership word as opposed to “I”. There are no leaders without followers, and leadership success depends on good followers. Share the knowledge of how you were a successful follower as you will soon become the leader depending on your followers.
John S. McCallum; Ivy Business Journal September/October 2013