LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — It’s not surprising that when I tell subordinates to challenge authority, I often get a look of confusion. Admittedly, this is a step used to provoke thought. Obviously, we don’t need subordinates undermining their leader’s authority. My intent is not to create insubordination — it is to underscore the importance of strong followership.
Great leaders don’t exist without strong followers. At every level of the Air Force we all answer to someone. We all have leaders, and we are all subordinates. Great followers help their leaders excel by challenging them to be better. To that end, I have a few suggestions I’ve found effective.
First, understand direction. The first rule of successful task completion is to understand the task. This seems obvious, but I have witnessed numerous tasks completed that were wildly off target. When a leader lays out expectations, be absolutely clear on those expectations. If you are not, ask. Furthermore, understand and work the boss’ priorities. Challenge leaders to be unambiguous about what matters. This will allow you to apply focus where it’s most effective. The competition for our attention is fierce. Differentiating between “must do” and “nice to do” will allow you to meet your boss’ expectations and work his priorities.
Second, seek feedback. Challenge leaders to provide actionable feedback. The most effective feedback is uncomfortable. Few enjoy telling someone they are not performing to their expectations and fewer still enjoy hearing it. The best guidance I’ve received wasn’t positive, but it let me know that I had weak areas. I’m better as a result. Time spent telling each other we’re awesome doesn’t make us better. My children will tell you I’m hypercritical, but I’ve yet to meet someone who had zero room for improvement.
Subordinates, insist on feedback; fight for it. It will make you better. Supervisors, use honest feedback to develop your Airmen. They deserve it.
Lastly, provide feedback. Short of a unit climate assessment, we don’t often provide feedback up the chain. However, strong leaders ask. Great feedback sessions end with a sincere “What do you have for me?” It doesn’t imply weakness. Given this opportunity, I’ve been frank with my boss when I thought my opinion mattered. We all owe our leaders loyalty, but we also have a duty to make them better. If feedback can help, I say give it. When needed, respectfully challenge leaders with your feedback. Leaders, don’t lead via referendum, but listen to ideas and opinions. I’ve heard amazingly insightful input come from our lowest ranks.
The best leaders have greatness in their ranks. As said, we all have a duty to be loyal to our leaders. I believe part of that loyalty is doing our part to make leaders better. Understand their direction, insist on feedback, and provide feedback when appropriate. With few exceptions, our Air Force is blessed with stellar leadership at all levels. However, our leaders are not infallible and are certainly not perfect. Strong leaders learn from their subordinates and grow as they lead. The best followers challenge their leaders to lead them well.