In military aviation, the “wingman” is responsible for protecting the lead in a two-ship formation. As the “Lead” prosecutes the target, the “Wingman” watches his back and calls out threats. In this “two-ship” formation, there’s a leader and a follower, but they work together to accomplish the mission and get everyone back home. Put another way, the wingman is a good follower.
Followership is a key component to leadership, both in the team being led and in the leader herself.
In the military, we indoctrinate our new recruits into followership first and while we’re teaching them leadership. The reason we do that is because good followership is a prerequisite to good leadership. Contrary to what some may believe, good followership is not merely doing what one is told. That’s certainly not true in the American military where we follow the Prussian military tradition of placing our moral obligations above the orders of our superiors. Put another way, good followership is not blind obedience, but rather it is the active participation by the follower in the leadership of the team.
Good followership is as essential as good leadership in the success of the team. If the leader is the only one thinking, the team will be mired in mediocrity. Good followership is an important part of the Leaders Lead principle…when the top leader empowers and supports teams in developing their own leadership the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. People will begin thinking ahead, anticipating problems, and being good wingmen to each other as well as to the boss. When everyone focuses on serving others, the result can be very powerful.
“Lead” has to model the “wingman” behavior as well, and in my book, Leading Leaders, I discuss the importance of leaders’ modeling good followership:
As a leader, you can build good followers by modeling the behavior yourself. For example, when given direction from your boss, pass it on with the same enthusiasm as if it were your own idea. That might take a little acting at times, but if you hold your boss up to ridicule, you’ll be opening the door to your subordinates to ridicule you. Loyalty is contagious; demonstrate loyalty and you’ll engender loyalty in return.
So be a good wingman, and you’ll get good wingmen in return. With a solid “two-ship” flying in a tight formation, you’ll hit your target and bring the birds home safely!