Follower Does Not Equal failure

A great deal of time and attention is regularly devoted to exploring the many facets of leadership. The collective labors of a wide variety of people have been devoted to creating a proper understanding of just what constitutes the makeup of those among us who turn out to be good leaders. Many among this research throng are looking for a magic formula. These people believe that it is possible to create a "magic mental bullet" which, when shot into the brain of a receptive person, will suddenly make them an effective leader. Sorry.
 
You will of course know by now that I am one of the people who have been studying this issue of leadership. What separates me from many in the pack of persistent pedagogues who persist in pursuing our professional passions is that I see no hope of creating a magic potion which, when consumed, will cause a person to be a positive force in their organization. Instead I have uncovered a wide variety of things which people who wish to can learn if they so choose.
 
Let me suggest that we each have the potential to learn about leadership in the old fashioned way. We can read about it, observe the actions of others, ponder what is going on around us, and then define our own personal approach to leading people. We then lead others, make our mistakes, undergo a re-learning process and then work to hone our approach. Let me suggest that being a leader in your fire department is more of a journey-based lifestyle than a destination-oriented system. There is always something new to learn and do. You do not arrive at a position of leadership and then begin to simply vegetate.
 
It is this great obsession with what makes up leadership that takes us away from a fairly important point. Everyone cannot be a leader. There are those who will, by choice or chance, spend their entire time in your fire department as workers. It is up to you to nurture thee folks so that they will be equipped to make the move from member to follower. 
 
Let me stress that there needs to be a sufficient number of followers in order to accomplish the actual work of the organization. What makes a follower a great follower? They need to understand the vision being put forward by the leader and believe that they have a valuable role in the accomplishment of the plans created with their efforts in mind. Let now me offer a couple of additional questions which I wish to use in defining this discussion regarding leadership and followership.
 
The first question may seem simple, but I want you to pause and ponder just what I am saying to you. Is every member of your organization going to be a leader? What do you think? Let me suggest that when you think about the size of most organizations, you will see that it will be impossible for every person to become a leader. There are only so many positions for leaders.
 
My next question is going to be a bit more provocative. I want you to think long and hard before you answer this one. Do you equate being a follower with being a failure? Does not being a leader make a person any less of a person? Before you answer, take and moment and think about the many people with whom you have worked over the past months and years.
 
Are there folks in your fire department who have devoted decades of service to your organization without ever rising to an officer's position? You bet there are. Many people have an internal need to rise up and assume positions of responsibility for other folks. That is part of human nature. Let me also offer the thought that there are others among us who thrive on the doing of their jobs. Their entire reason for belonging to an organization is to be a part of the team. 
 
Let me share with you the fact that I have seen this in the military, career, and volunteer fire service. But it goes well beyond our small share of society. There are people in the Masonic World who delight in living life on the sidelines of their lodges. They have their reasons for not wishing to rise up through the officer's ranks. It is not my place to challenge their reasons, rationale, or their lives. We cherish each person for what their companionship provides as well as what they can devote to the overall good of our lodges. 
 
The same holds true for the other organizations in which I share membership. It was never important to me to rise up within the ranks of our local Elks Lodge, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, or our local American Legion Post. As a man devoted to rising through the ranks of the career fire service, little time was left over after taking care of my family, meeting my commitments to the Adelphia Fire Company, and the New Jersey Army National Guard. Let me suggest that society in general is quite like this.
 
In the worlds of ants and bees, there are many workers and few leaders. Many aspects of the animal world are like this. As a society, we too need a wide array of well-trained followers. Oh, did I just add a qualifier to the follower equation? Yes I did. We need to provide a wide array of training for those who occupy the roles where the actual labor is being performed. In this way they too can become well qualified to perform their jobs.
 
It is also important to nurture and motivate these folks. They need to be provided with the rationale for the manner in which their fire department is being led. The leader must create, communicate, and live a solid, well-crafted vision for the journey upon which they intend to take their fire department.
 
People cannot suddenly know what is in the head of the leader. The leader must communicate their vision in a manner in which their folks can understand. In this way, there is hope that there will be a buy-in from the organizational stakeholders. It is this buy-in which is the first step in the creation of real followers. 
 
We are often mistaken in the way we think of followers. We miscast them in our minds eye and then fail to follow through with our thinking. Chaleff (2003) makes a critical distinction, one which I believe you and I must adopt. He provided us with the thought that the word, "… (F)ollower is not synonymous with subordinate. A subordinate reports to an individual of higher rank, and may in practice be a supporter, an antagonist, or indifferent (to the person to whom they are reporting). A follower (on the other hand) shares a common purpose with the leader, believes in what the organization is trying to accomplish, wants both the leader and the organization to succeed, and works energetically to this end" (p.15).
 
In my mind, this means that being classed as a subordinate seems to equal being called cipher (or simply a number). Sadly, it would seem as though a subordinate is just a thing to many folks in responsible positions. I would hesitate even to call people like this leaders. Heck, with an attitude like this, they might not even be slotted into the manager mold. They are simply organizational dumbasses charged with running others around the mulberry bush. Like I have said many times, managers manage things and leaders lead people. It is really that simple my friends.
 
On the other hand, effective leaders strive to create, nurture, and stimulate their followers. Chaleff (2003) goes on to note that an important relationship between leaders and followers involves the fact that both are stewards of the resources entrusted to their care. The leader recognizes the value of the follower and works to inculcate their vision of the organization to all of the members. They also provide the necessary training, support, and motivation to build up this organization-based relationship. 
 
It is important for leaders to understand their role in the development of an environment wherein the followers are allowed to develop. It is critical for the leaders to understand the importance of the role of the follower as an integral part of an organization's success. This is important. It is also important for the leader to know how to encourage and empower people to perform their roles within the organization. Unless the leaders value and nurture followers, there will be no followers. There will just be people to order around. 
 
One of the difficult tasks faced by an active and empowered follower is to perform both aspects of their dual-function role as an "implementer and challenger of the leader's ideas" (Chaleff, 2003, p. 15). They had to accomplish the tasks they are given. However, if they are to do their very best, they need to challenge the leader to provide them with solid, well-thought-out tasks. This cannot happen in the absence of training, support, and encouragement.
 
Would you provide all of the support training and encouragement to which I make reference to a simple number, a cipher, a living breathing non-entity? Would you be so ignorant to think of one of your people as such a value-less commodity? Again, it is with questions such as these that I am hoping to simulate you who are in positions of leadership in hopes of making you see the need to create a class of other leaders who truly value people enough to build them into followers. 
 
Unless leaders awake to the need to motivate, train, and empower the people who stand ready to become followers of the first rank. However, unless you are able to create, communicate, and share a vision of where you believe your fire department should be headed, this cannot happen.
 
It is my suggestion that when you reach the point where you have created a wide array of true followers, there will be little that stands in the way of success for your fire department. These folks will see you and know that you are on their side. They will know where you are headed and they will be willing and available to support you as you navigate your organizational ship to the far shore of success in our operational world. 
 
In my book there is no relationship between follower and failure. The failure will come from the ignorant and inconsiderate person in a position of leadership who squanders the opportunity develop an integrated team of hard-charging supporters who believe in what you, as the leader, wish to accomplish for your fire department. 
 
No, being a follower has nothing to do with failure. It is a clearly a critical weigh station on the road to organizational success. The leader who never comes to understand this concept is perhaps the worst failure of all. As always, this is just my $.02.

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