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Super Subordinates: Followership in the British Army

“We are often uncomfortable with the idea of being called a follower.  We want to act as a leader and be recognised as a leader.”

~ Ira Chaleff

Despite being renowned for its study and practice of leadership, the British Army is behind the times when it comes to followership.  The term follower itself is unpopular in civilian and military circles; subordinate may be more appealing, and appropriate in a military hierarchy.  Based upon the experience of Battalion Command, this article offers a typology of followership at unit level and recommends a new framework to approach being an ideal follower, or super subordinate in the British Army.  

Introduction

The British Army is in a bind: we are (rightly) obsessed with leadership.  We recruit officers based on leadership potential, train and educate at all levels on leadership theory, and reward those who demonstrate leadership in practice.  All this is positive in an organisation that must balance peacetime responsibilities with the potential for warfighting.  However, this obsession has led, until recently, to an oversight in thinking when it comes to the other key ingredient in a leadership relationship; the followers.  The recent publication of a Followership Doctrine Note takes a stride towards changing the British Army’s approach.  As modern working practices become ever more collaborative–and soldiers born in the twenty-first century arrive with expectations of being active participants in decision-making–a gap has emerged in conceptual understanding of followership in the British Army.  Now is the time to reinvent the wheel. 

To celebrate followership is not to discredit leadership.  Rather than being beneath leadership, it is an essential part of the same mutually supporting concept.  The British Army’s love of leadership is well founded, but has evolved from the Great Man Theory of the past, where only the privileged and elite were destined to lead.  British Army doctrine encourages the newest of soldiers, from all backgrounds, to believe that they can be a leader too: “From the most junior soldier, through the NCOs that form the backbone of our Army, up to the most senior general, we all lead.”1  This approach is admirable, and yet at the same time, myopic.  At Regimental level, while many may have leadership qualities and the potential to lead, there are far more people acting as followers than leaders.  This is the reality.  Every serviceperson, from Chief of Defence Staff downwards, is a subordinate.  And yet as the Haythornthwaite review makes clear, across the rank structure in Defence people want a greater sense of agency and empowerment.

Follow the leader: am I a leader or a follower?

Followership, similar to leadership, lacks a common definition.  The Army approach is that followership is “the act of willingly following a leader”, and refers to actions of a subordinate.2  A new definition (Followership Doctrine Note) states: “Followership is the act of an individual or individuals willingly accepting the influence of others to achieve a shared outcome.”  Being labelled a follower however, as the opening quote suggests, is not popular amongst aspiring leaders-to-be.  No soldier has come up to me and asked for help to become a better follower; yet almost all of them aspire to be better leaders.  Equally few plan annual objectives where they aim to succeed as a follower, although objectives could be structured to enhance followership capacity; it is leadership that they will seek to demonstrate, and against which they will be judged as a performance attribute.  Soldiers know that leadership is a key determinant in who gets promoted.  

This is despite the fact that loyalty is one of the Army values, and that loyalty is taught to be just as important upwards as downwards.  The foundation of values within followership forms part of a new doctrinal approach.  My experience is that soldiers and officers will take great pride in demonstrating loyalty to their subordinates, but signalling loyalty to those above them in the chain of command is less common.  We have all been guilty of “slating” the chain of command; it is a common bond in the Army.  This may be tied within the culture of ‘serve to lead’, an aspiration to look downwards first, again admirable in itself, but not necessarily the path of effective followership.  Perhaps there is also a problem with terminology.  For some, at the heart of the followership concept is “a language problem”;3 it can suggest passivity, whereas the digital age demands collaboration, and influence.  That influence can be better expressed in terms such as leading upwards, or managing up, whereby a subordinate can respectfully challenge their boss.  In Defence, the concept of being subordinate is commonplace.  As all followers must be subordinates, should we not develop its usage?  

Followers in the British Army 

Not all subordinates, and not all followers are the same.  Just as every leader has their own style – as Slim said, “it is just plain you”4 – every follower will respond to leaders in a unique way.  However, there have been attempts to categorise followers into groupings as a means to better understand the concept.  These follower types usually range from the disinterested, to exemplars of followership.  Kelley, for instance, identifies five styles of followership: sheep (unthinking followers), yes-people (always onside), alienated (they think, but negatively; often mavericks), pragmatics (see out change and stick to the status quo) and star followers (think, challenge, and actively follow).5  This model may be accurate in certain business settings, but is not very attractive for Defence; only one of the five categories meets the ideal concept of followership.  

In another approach, Kellerman offers five types of follower: Isolates, Bystanders, Participants, Activists and Diehards.6  The last, and most extreme followers in her typology, Diehards, are those literally willing to die for a cause or their leader.  In Kellerman’s view these people are rare – with the exception of the armed forces, where subordinates must be prepared to sacrifice themselves in the line of duty.7  In other words, in Kellerman’s view all soldiers are Diehards.  When it comes to being a subordinate, a state of being that applies to every soldier, can we really all be in the same category of follower?  I would beg to differ.  As such, these models are not credible for the purpose of military/army followership. The Armed Forces do not fit within recognised follower typologies, and the British Army requires a bespoke framework.

In observing the soldiers I serve with, and reflecting upon previous service, certain types of subordinates, or followers, emerge:

  1. The false follower.  Fortunately, there are not many of these.  Soldiers who seem to listen to the leader and appear to be on the same team will deliberately disrupt plans or pursue another path; crucially, without ever verbalising the reasons for their disagreement to the superior.  It might be that they view the leader as toxic, or that they feel they know better.  It may be that they do not believe in being a subordinate at all.  Often, these soldiers rely upon being able to “wait out” a leader, either because the leader is in a short-term command appointment, or because the soldier themself is due posting.
  2. The Slido soldier.  This category, in my experience, is more common: dependable, professional subordinates who engage in a limited relationship with the leader.  In hosting discussion groups with junior soldiers, I have found that some will stay quiet when asked to speak up in front of the person who writes their annual reports.  This may comment upon my own flawed style of leadership, and the struggle to create psychological safety for honest conversations, or it might say more about the risk versus reward for a soldier in challenging those who determine their suitability for promotion.  In our context, a Gurkha Battalion, there is also a cultural factor of deep respect for seniors that makes raising a contrary opinion something that does not always come naturally, an example of hidden power structures that may exist elsewhere.  Either way, when instead offered the chance to raise their views anonymously, via the Slido App for centralised discussion, a stream of relevant and challenging points has been raised.  
  3. The ConfidantThese model subordinates earn the complete trust of their superior.  They typically hold a privileged position and emanate authenticity.  This might be an Adjutant, Quartermaster or Regimental Sergeant Major, all of whom have a unique opportunity, in close proximity to the Commanding Officer, to raise concerns from the Battalion or highlight blind spots.  In my own case, on more than one occasion these subordinates have told me that they were uncomfortable with a pending decision, which caused me to reflect and reconsider; they played the part of an audible inner voice.  While founded on moral courage, we should not forget that these subordinates have unparalleled access to the superior.  Ideally, throughout the command structure there is someone empowered to play a similar role.  
  4. The self-organising subordinate.  The soldier who listens and understands intent (the purpose and desired end state) and then goes away and designs a novel and effective way to achieve this.  These are the soldiers that surprise you, soldiers for whom the Army approach of mission command – centralised intent with decentralised execution – was designed.  They enact “mission command plus” because these subordinates not only understand ideas, but improve upon them through initiative and by bringing concepts into reality.  They are highly committed activists, but chart a path guided by a well-attuned moral compass; they do not follow blindly, but will instead question and challenge in an appropriate manner.  Rather than being Diehards, I would argue that the vast majority of soldiers in the British Army are self-organising subordinates.
  5. Disciples.  These are rare, but are soldiers who hang on every word of their leader and repeat their direction as dogma.  The last time I saw this trait was in a group of staff officers who supported a senior General; in their eyes, there was only one truth: the gospel uttered by their leader.  They were not open to contrary views, which were effectively heretical.  Being a disciple as a subordinate is ultimately dangerous, a form of irresponsible followership that over time will weaken, rather than strengthen a leader as their self-awareness decreases.  In the warfighting context, however, there may be times when the military relies upon this type of follower to take action.

Super subordinates: a “how to” guide

With this typology of subordinates in mind, soldiers would also benefit from a recognised approach to followership; just as to be leaders there is an endorsed Army Leadership Code (ALC), or “how to” guide.8  A sense of accountability unites leaders and followers, or superiors and subordinates.  To be accountable is to share responsibility.  Leadership and followership must be a joint endeavour.  At present, followers have to find their own way.  This is made doubly difficult by the fact that, in the Army system, commanders typically serve a short period in an appointment (2-3 years) before moving on, whereas their subordinates might serve the whole of their careers in the same unit.  Just like Civil Servants in Defence, these subordinates become the custodians of what is right and wrong, of our heritage and customs.  A framework is required to help all parties in their individual and collective role.  This can build upon the Army values already mentioned as underpinning followership, and now captured in doctrine, to offer critical support to the led in mapping out their actions.  That offered below has been developed from reflections with junior leaders (JNCOs) on how soldiers can approach becoming better followers.

Gary Allen's FOLLOW model. useful for followership.

A framework and an understanding of the different styles of subordinates in the British Army will go a long way towards reducing confusion and the knowledge gap in what it is to exercise followership.  However, for these concepts to become institutionalised, annual evaluation reports also have to recognise and reward evidence of positive subordinate, or follower behaviour.  When soldiers see that they are rewarded as a subordinate as well as a leader, the outlier categories of “false followers” and “disciples” will rapidly reduce in the organisation. 

Summary

Leader-follower dynamics have changed, while British Army doctrine and education has been taking small, but incremental steps to introduce followership as a concept.  The introduction of the Followership Doctrine Note is a move in the right direction.  The terminology of followers is uncomfortable in civilian sectors, and more so in the military however, where leadership is deemed all-important.  The Army must shift focus away from leadership alone to institutionalising and rewarding the best practices of responsible followership.  This article recommends that if soldiers are not prepared to be called followers, then they should be ready to be super subordinates.  It has offered a typology of subordinates at unit level and a framework to shape an approach alongside well established values and standards.  The ultimate aim is for the British Army to be recognised as not only at the forefront of leadership, but also followership.

 

Cover photo: MOD

Gary Allen

Gary Allen is a British Army Officer in the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.  He has served in operations in the Middle East and Europe and has 20 years of experience in single and joint environments as well as with NATO and the UN.

The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.

Footnotes

  1. Lt Gen Chris Tickell (2019), quoted in Army Leadership Doctrine (Camberley: Centre for Army Leadership), vi.  Available online: https://www.army.mod.uk/media/14177/21-07-267-army-leadership-doctrine-web.pdf (Accessed 30 March 2023).
  2. Army Leadership Doctrine (Camberley: Centre for Army Leadership), 3-3.  Available online: https://www.army.mod.uk/media/14177/21-07-267-army-leadership-doctrine-web.pdf (Accessed 30 March 2023).
  3. Joseph Rost, “Followership: An outdated concept,” in The Art of Followership, ed. Ronald E. Riggio, Ira Chaleff & Jean Lipman-Blumen (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 53.
  4. Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Courage and other broadcasts (London: Cassell & Co, 1957).
  5. Robert E. Kelley, “Rethinking Followership” in The Art of Followership, ed. Ronald E. Riggio, Ira Chaleff & Jean Lipman-Blumen (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 7-8.
  6. Barbara Kellerman, “What Every Leader Needs to Know About Followers,” Harvard Business Review, December 2007, 84-91.
  7. ibid
  8. Army Leadership Doctrine (Camberley: Centre for Army Leadership), 5-1.  Available online: https://www.army.mod.uk/media/14177/21-07-267-army-leadership-doctrine-web.pdf (Accessed 30 March 2023).

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