Great Leaders: Take Input from Their Followers

I was conducting a leadership training class for a large fire department and I noticed a pretty big morale problem. When I started asking questions and getting to the bottom of the issue, I discovered that every decision that was being made in the...

I was conducting a leadership training class for a large fire department and I noticed a pretty big morale problem. When I started asking questions and getting to the bottom of the issue, I discovered that every decision that was being made in the department was being made without any input or...

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The captain listened to the sailor's idea and then acted on it. He contacted the Navy supply system, only to discover it had no stainless steel fasteners in stock. The captain didn't stop there. He went to the nearest Home Depot, used the ship credit card to purchase the fasteners and had them installed all over the ship. This made it possible for the ship to be painted just once a year. What a boost to morale! It also sent a message that the captain was serious about hearing ideas and putting them to use. The Navy now uses these fasteners on all of its ships just because one captain took input and suggestions from his crew and then took action. That's real leadership.

Fire departments that adopt this philosophy find success in it. They see increased morale and better teams. They see firefighters buying into policies and decisions because they were involved in the process. They are seeing some fantastic ideas and creativity coming out of the front line. Firefighters all over the United States are coming up with great ideas on how to save money, lower injuries, increase morale, serve the public and improve processes. Are you listening to them?

Another area that great leaders are allowing followers to give them input is the effectiveness of their leadership. Most managers and leaders make themselves accountable up the chain of command (because they have to), but few make themselves accountable down or across the chain. Let me ask you a question: Of the following, who do you think could provide the most accurate assessment as to your effectiveness as a leader:

  • Your manager
  • Your subordinates
  • Your peers

Most people would say the subordinates could give the most accurate assessment and then peers, with managers being last. But who conducts your performance evaluations? Your managers. What's wrong with this picture? If you really want to get an accurate assessment of how effective you are as a leader (formal or informal), you will open yourself up to input from your followers and your peers. Great leaders see this type of input as beneficial to their growth as a leader. It's easy to make yourself accountable up the chain of command for your leadership abilities, but are you willing to make yourself accountable down and across? Real leaders are.

I recommend a 360-degree evaluation. This lets the people who witness your leadership skills evaluate you whether they are above you, below you, or beside you — thus, the name 360-degree evaluation. This has proven to be incredibly effective for people to take the input objectively and make changes to their behavior based on that input.

You simply have people fill out a one-page form that lets them rate you on whether or not you exhibit certain leadership traits necessary to be an effective leader. I have a leadership assessment you can download from my website for free and customize it to your needs. Then you can enter the results into an Excel spreadsheet program and see where you stand as a leader. Just log on to

Have the following people fill it out for you:

  • Your subordinates (if you don't have subordinates, have your peers fill it out)
  • Your supervisors
  • Your peers (people you work with at the same rank)
  • Your friends in the department (people of any rank)
  • Your friends outside the department
  • Members of the public who know you
  • Family members (if you want a really honest opinion!)
  • And, fill one out on yourself

If you foster an atmosphere of trust and respect, people will give you honest input as long as they feel you will receive it objectively and not defensively. People will not be honest if they think you will retaliate in some way. I suggest letting people fill these out anonymously because they are more likely to be honest that way.

Once you have collected the input of people, take an honest look at the areas where they say you need improvement. See it as an opportunity to grow and don't view it as a negative process of finding your faults. The most important aspect of this evaluation is to see how you view yourself in relation to how others view you. Most people are surprised at some of their blind spots, but just remember: "People who are unaware are generally unaware that they are unaware." Think about it.

Using Feedback

Giving and receiving input takes maturity on the part of the giver and receiver, whether it's input into leadership abilities or input into processes and systems. If you're a firefighter who wants to give more input and offer more suggestions, do it respectfully and constructively. Don't set out to criticize every policy and every person in the organization. People are much more likely to listen to your input if you come to the table with ideas and suggestion to resolve problems instead of attacking the people who you think caused the problems. Come with a cooperative attitude that wants to see everyone win. That's what good leadership is all about.