Leadership Lesson: Would you follow you?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Arlene Adams
  • 319th Medical Support Squadron Commander
Leadership is supposed to be a choice, not just a position. We are all leaders in some capacity whether at home, work, or in the community. There are examples of leaders everywhere. Many are powerful, many are popular, but few are worthy of being followed.

Many leaders follow successful models who exemplify the values, skills and qualities they desire to possess, but keep in mind that all leaders, even the mentors/role models, have to take time to self-reflect and ask if they are worthy of followership. Identifying a mentor/role model is fairly common. We typically know or can identify someone we want to emulate in our career. However, the part that separates successful leaders from the rest is the willingness to commit and do the necessary work to get them where they want to be. Yes, leadership is a never ending process of self-reflection and growth, regardless of the level you are at.

Serving as a leader in the United States Air Force is different from other forms of public service. We swore to defend the Constitution and our country from enemies, both foreign and domestic, and swore to obey the orders of the President and the officers appointed over us. We serve 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, and every year with high standards in our commitment to service, to our chain of command, and to our people. We often deny ourselves the freedom to take a pass, 'opt out' or say "No, thank you." We all should feel privileged to be given the opportunity to hold a leadership role in this great organization, but we all know simply occupying a leadership role does not make someone a leader.

No one can lead if they lack the desire to do so. As leaders, we cannot become better without the same desire. Leadership is a set of skills and abilities that are accessible and learnable by anyone who has the motivation and desire to learn it. We must educate people to help them become productive followers and leaders because virtually no one leads all of the time. Leadership runs hand in hand with followership. How can you lead if you do not know how to follow? Have you ever asked yourself why anyone would follow you?

I have come across many successful leaders throughout my career, many of whom I sought out mentorship and guidance from.  What was it about these leaders that attracted me as a follower? These are the qualities and traits I found that were consistently held by each leader:

Integrity. They always did the right thing for the right reason, regardless of the circumstances. Those who live with integrity are incorruptible and incapable of breaking the trust of those who have confided in them. Every human is born with a conscience and therefore the ability to know right from wrong. Choosing the right, regardless of the consequence, is the hallmark of integrity.

Commitment. They led by example, often times holding themselves to higher standards. Actions speak louder than words.

Fairness. They consistently treated everyone fairly and understood that fairness is the ability to rise above their own prejudices and treat everyone equally.

Inspiration. They brought out the best in others. They guided and supported others in their success, ensuring that everyone was performing at their best, doing the work they were meant to do, and doing it with excellence.

Trust. They led with trust, not power or control. They earned trust from their followers by being competent, reliable and consistent, and in return attracted people who were loyal and showed great respect. But this takes time. Trust is one of the hardest things to develop and easiest to lose.

Aspiration. They had a passion for personal growth. They kept striving, setting goals for themselves and let their people know.

Compassion. They took time to get to know their people and talked to them. Leadership is a relationship between those who choose to lead and those who choose to follow. They were devoted to building this relationship based on mutual respect and caring, because they knew that the quality of the relationship will determine the quality of the results.

Attitude. They had a positive attitude. They worked at keeping energy levels up to keep their team motivated toward the success of the organization.

Mentorship. They took time not only to mentor and coach others to their full potential, but to self-reflect and seek out their own mentors for personal growth. In addition to managing and motivating their people, they helped them learn, grow and become more effective in their jobs.

Leaders use different pathways for success, one size does not fit all situations. There is no magic combination of characteristics or traits that make a leader successful; they may depend on different circumstances. As I reflect on my 16 years serving in the Air Force, at all the opportunities I've been given to lead, especially this past year in command, I continue to seek mentorship, accept feedback, make adjustments or improvements where needed as well as take the time to mentor and be there for my troops.

There will always be an ongoing effort to take care of the mission, take care of the people and create more leaders. The Air Force's most valuable asset is its people, so it is our responsibility as leaders (at all levels from active duty and civilian) to look out for each other and help maintain and improve that asset. Professionalism in followership is just as important as professionalism in leadership. Remember that leadership is a privilege, and making yourself worthy of being followed comes with great responsibility. It means you can inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and be more. They say that people do what people see. If you serve in a leadership role, when your team looks at you or when they watch what you do day in and day out, think about what they see. Are you worthy of being followed...would you follow you?