Followership requires determination

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Thomas W. Tyson
  • 3rd Fighter Training Squadron
The military and history are full of leadership tales. It's easy to find books, articles, classes and the like on the subject. It's compared and contrasted with management. It's debated whether it's an art or a science. Great and not so great military leaders became legends due to the position they were in and the decisions they made when faced with history-changing decisions. Truth be told, we need many more followers than leaders ... and we need good ones. When the situation calls for you to be a good leader, be one. However, the same is true if called upon to be a follower ... be equally as good.

I'd contend followership has nothing to do with management, and no one cares if it's defined as an art or a science. Instead, I'd describe it as a character issue. Something my grandfather called "gumption," the moxie and fortitude to do your job with pride. Others might just define it as simple accountability. Are you someone that can follow when the order is unpopular? Will you be there when the going gets tough? Will you give an honest effort when your heart's really not in it?

In Air Force language, being a good wingman. To apply a football metaphor from one of the world's greatest collegiate football programs, I'd liken it to the choice by Penn State to not have individuals' names on their football jerseys. Joe Paterno feels success on the field should be measured by the accomplishments of the team, not the individual. But, if personal glory is your gig, the coach doesn't have much need for you. Your job is to fight for the team and if the ball is never given to you, you still do your job to the best of your ability, maybe even better because you don't have the ball.

I'm proud to say, the primary mission of the men and women of the 3rd Fighter Training Squadron is to teach followership. To teach the United States Air Force's newest pilots to be wingmen, not leaders, but followers.

After years in the cockpit, I was upgrading to be an F-15 four-ship flight lead, but one day was put on the schedule to be a wingman in a large force exercise. I voiced my opinion that someone else was better for that lowly position and surely they could find a lead position in-line with my upgrade program. A wise old fighter pilot stepped in and told me that I could learn as much about leadership by flying as a wingman as I could by actually being in the lead position if I would just look at it from a different perspective. Not only was he right, but I've often thought of his advice when I find myself in a wingman position when in fact I'd rather be leading.

The old adage, "where you sit determines where you stand" is one that always made a lot of sense to me. Look at issues from the perspective of the other person. Many times when you do this, it's easy to figure that you would often make the same decision as your flight lead, given the same circumstances.

Abraham Lincoln said, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." We in the fighter business have tightened that up a bit and say "never pass up the opportunity to shut up." Our messages are the same, when you're new at something, the best thing you can do is listen and learn. Being a good wingman takes hard work, determination and humility. And, it will be well worth it when the coach calls your number ... you'll be ready for anything.