Learning to follow

Camp Atterbury, IN -- Taj and I a few years ago ... He was much more agreeable as a 4-year old than he is now. I worry about making sure he knows how to lead AND follow as he gets older.

Camp Atterbury, IN —
Taj and I a few years ago …
He was much more agreeable as a 4-year old than he is now. I worry about making sure he knows how to lead AND follow as he gets older.

The military does a great job of turning people into leaders. But followers? Not so much.

Of course, the chain of command exists so that no matter what, everyone knows who is in charge. Traditionally, officers provide guidance (lead) and the enlisted execute it (follow.)

But when you put a bunch of officers in a room, inevitably, they start jockeying for leadership positions. Some people just can’t stand to NOT be in control of a situation. Even when a formal authority is identified, they’ll still try to run the show. (I think that we feel that being a “follower” is somehow a sign of weakness.)

It’s not their fault … it’s how we’re trained. We’re taught to take control and command the situation. True, there are lower-ranking officers who must follow the orders of higher-ranking officers, but in general all officers are hard-wired to lead, so taking orders and executing them is a bit more difficult for officers than it is enlisted. This is in part due to military officer culture … it focuses so much on being a good leader that we lack the know-how to be a good follower.

Every once in a while, (like today) I find myself in this situation. I naturally want to emerge as a leader, but am reminded that sometimes it’s okay to follow. I’ve figured out that I should step up and try to lead when I have the knowledge to do so, but when I’m out of my element, I should just be there, shut up and execute the orders of the ones in the know. This goes against everything we’ve been taught as officers, and I feel awkward when it happens, but it makes sense. In life-or-death situations, rank doesn’t matter … people will follow natural leaders who inspire others to follow them. And it’s kind of hard to inspire people to follow you when you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people in the military (primarily us officers) don’t know this simple rule: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you probably should not be talking.

I’m trying to teach Taj the same thing. As he grows, he is trying to assert himself, especially at school. I like to see him taking charge, but sometimes he gets so aggressive that he comes off as pushy and alienates his friends. When I return from the ‘stan, I hope I can remember to teach Taj how to be a leader AND a follower … they’re equally important.

This is certainly the rule I’ll be following in the ‘stan. I think I’ll be more worried about getting the job done and getting home safely than worrying about me being perceived as the guy in charge. If I know how to help the team, I’ll speak up. If I don’t, I’ll shut up and help the person who does, no matter what rank they are. (If I’m lucky, other members of my team will do the same.)

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