Commentary Search

Leading, following AND getting out of the way

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Cathy Barrington
  • 319th Missile Squadron commander
Several years ago, I saw a T-shirt in a store that read "Lead, follow or get out of the way." Right next to it was another shirt described the advantages of being the "lead sled dog" (hint: it has to do with the view). The message was clear, it is better to be a leader than a follower.

Taking leadership advice from )T-shirts isn't a good idea. While the phrase appeals to the ego of some to loudly declare, "I am a leader, not a follower," military service requires balancing all three roles. By replacing "or" with "and," we can achieve much more.

All of us serve somewhere in the chain of command. We begin at the bottom and work our way up. We start as followers, learn our jobs and develop the expertise and experience we will rely on during our careers. We eventually take on new responsibilities and transition into leadership roles at various levels, but the responsibility to be a good follower never fades away. A leader may have authority over any number of followers, but that leader is also a follower of others, charged with accomplishing a bigger mission.

Commanders and their units are not isolated entities. A squadron must accomplish the mission for the group and squadrons across the wing must work together to meet the wing mission. Ultimately, our wing meets the mission needs of the combatant commander, who meets the needs of the President, and the President has 330 million bosses - the American people. In the profession of arms we all serve others. There are different levels of leadership and no one is at the top of a pyramid, from the first-time supervisor to a four-star general, all leaders have someone to follow. Accountability up and down the chain of command creates many layers of leadership and followership, all linked in accomplishing the mission.

Leading and following isn't always enough. Sometimes it pays to know when to step aside and let someone else take charge. In this moment, we can learn and enhance our own leadership and followership skills.

Getting out of the way is not weakness, it makes us stronger. Humility in acknowledging that sometimes someone else has the answer and it can be a good thing.

The real key is figuring out when to do what. A leader must set the vision, deliver the intent and ensure followers have what they need to accomplish the mission. When this is done, it is time to get out of the way.

Train people and allow them to perform. Reward excellence and watch it grow. That is what we are trying to do today with our nuclear enterprise. Let us empower leaders at all levels to lead. Let us empower followers to be dynamic and voice their opinions. And let us jump out of the way and watch amazing professionals do what they are trained to do. We will all be better for it.