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OpinionPeople and LeadershipShort Read

Army Followership: Progression or Traditionalism. Pick One.

“Our task is to read things

that are not yet on the page.”

~ Steve Jobs

The British Army is at a crossroads.  It has the potential to become a global leader in the military conceptualisation of Followership, the first step being its August 2023 release of the Army Followership Doctrine Note (FDN).  However, traditionalism and risk aversion appear to be holding us back.  Here’s why.

The FDN, in alignment with so many thinkers1 2 and scholars3 4 on the subject, places a heavy focus on followership as being about a mutually supporting relationship between hierarchical leaders and the led or how people can follow their leader well.5  While these are important, they ignore or degrade a vital aspect of followership: that it is a phenomenon based on 360° behaviours.  How can we, as individuals or as an organisation, harness and develop more of followership’s phenomenal potential if we simply regurgitate the same conceptual trope as everybody else?

Positional leaders can, do, or often should, be led by their subordinates.  We would do well if this was far more explicit and far less muddled in our doctrine.  For instance, the first seven paragraphs of the FDN feels somewhat like a game of pass-the-parcel; followership flips through being an act, a relationship, a role, a partnership, back to a relationship, then back to an act, and then a relationship once more (this continues throughout).  This ambiguity, and shifting nature, of the roles and dynamic is unhelpful at best.

Behaviours, behaviours, behaviours.

Followership, like leadership, is a set of behaviours.  In a January 2023 article I wrote that leadership influences people while followership supports the organisation in achieving its goals.  If today’s teams are going to work optimally, leaders should be aware of the duality of leadership and followership.  Having said that, there is a little more to uncover when it comes to social dynamics and organisational behaviour; leadership and followership are deeply interdependent with one singular common element – power. 

When it comes to People, power is simultaneously our greatest strength and, presently, the biggest hindrance to the progression of followership conceptualisation.  When leaders cede power to their subordinates they behave in a way that allows positional (hierarchical) followers to influence upward; the leader is therefore employing the use of downward followership.  Critics might argue that this is simply upward leadership; this cannot be so unless the positional leader chooses to allow it to happen in the first place.  Leaders who are open to accepting input and influence from their subordinate team members are being led by those team members. Ceding power to followers is, in itself, a followership behaviour.

“While power remains necessary for effective leadership, the path to sustainable power is no longer through control.”

~ Martin Dempsey

In practice, the best leaders already know the score, of course, but that is a choice they make rather than a doctrinal guideline for the good and benefit of the Army.  Furthermore, the relative incongruence between our doctrine and reality risks leaving us at a point where internal conflict will arise in place of powerful and visionary team dynamics.

As a side note, let’s call peer-to-peer followership lateral followership, and the holistic concept 360° FollowershipFour statements for reflection:

  1. Influence is not tied to authority.
  2. Every individual is perfectly capable of 360° Followership, the problem is choice.
  3. The primary barrier stopping us from lending power to those we lead is ego.
  4. Another barrier stopping us from lending power to those we lead is fear.

Leaders are not followers in a positional sense, but they can still choose to exhibit followership behaviours which result in them being led by their subordinates.  The best leaders already know this, if even at a subconscious level. 

Leaders embody followership behaviours in numerous ways.  Below are some examples of organisational performance enhancing situations where leaders are led by their subordinates.  None of them are new but all of them rely on the leader making a choice; letting go of power.

Situations where leaders share power
Situations where leaders share power

Naysaying from traditionalists

Quality followership and warfighting organisations go hand-in-hand.  Codification of 360° Followership may face resistance from traditionalists who adhere to a more hierarchical view of leadership and that followers should learn to look up and follow them better.  In other words, they refuse to lend power to their subordinates by being humble enough or vulnerable enough to let others lead when appropriate.  Other traditionalists may argue that leaders should primarily focus on being at the forefront and setting the direction for their followers – rather than actively modelling appropriate followership behaviours in varying contexts.  Both of which assume the leader is some kind of super leader with all the wisdom, experience, courses of action, solutions, and answers.  They are not. 

Traditionalists may continue to resist the idea that leaders need to share power, to enact quality followership, if they are to lead optimally.  Yet, followership behaviours do not diminish a leader’s status or authority.  Instead it acknowledges the plentiful benefits of open communication, inclusive leadership, and collaborative approaches to problem-solving.  Effective leadership is more than just a top-down, command-and-control approach, we do not have time for naysayers as a warfighting organisation in today’s complex and rapidly changing world.

Leadership theories and practices have evolved to reflect the changing dynamics of modern societies and their organisations.  Through followership behaviours, leaders foster a sense of ownership, engagement, and commitment amongst their team members.  This recognises the expertise and contributions of individuals within the team, which leads to working smart not hard, enhanced performance, sustainability, and innovation.  With 360° Followership there are no losers.

Conclusion

360° Followership is already happening, you’ll see it wherever there are high-performing teams.  We need to conceptualise it to facilitate increased propagation across the organisation.  We can either continue to cling to traditional ideas of followership or embrace a holistic, inclusive, modern, and progressive approach that gets the best out of every team and individual. The idea that followership is predominantly about looking up is stifling and anachronistic, we need to move on. 

Visionary thinking around the subject encompasses a broader range of 360° behaviours that contribute to organisational progression and success.  By unpacking a more comprehensive understanding of followership, while maintaining absolute clarity throughout, the British Army–indeed the whole of Defence–could unlock more potential while becoming a global leader in its doctrinal codification.  The problem is choice. 

 

Feature image by Cyrus Chong on Unsplash

Philip

Philip has an interest in the lived experience of service personnel, much of his focus is on ground level leadership, followership, retention, and personnel development. He holds a Masters in Education with a leadership and management specialisation, and an Honours Degree in History.

Footnotes

  1. Adair, J. (2018). “…the capacity or willingness to follow a leader” P. 34. Lessons in Leadership: 12 Key Concepts. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  2. Chaleff, I. (2009). “The bottom line of followership is that we are responsible for our decision to continue or not to continue following a leader.” P. 168. The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to & for Our Leaders. United States: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  3. Kellerman, B. (2008). “Followership implies a relationship (rank), between subordinates and superiors, and a response (behavior), of the former to the latter.” (sic). P. xx. Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.
  4. Zoogah, D. (2014). “effective followership involves careful consideration or contemplation of the relational dynamics involving a follower and a leader.” P. 07. Strategic Followership: How Followers Impact Organizational Effectiveness. Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. There are many such examples, a recommended read and highly worthy contender is Dempsey, M. (2020). No Time for Spectators: The Lessons That Mattered Most from West Point to the West Wing. United States: Missionday.

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