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Great Leaders Often Follow

Successful flight department managers must work within agile teams with leadership assumed by the most appropriate person at the time, advises George Dom.

George Dom   |   15th December 2014
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George Dom George Dom

Captain George Dom, USN(Ret) is president and founder of NFS Advisors, an aviation consultancy...
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Leaders depend on followers and must also be good followers themselves

In an unchanging world of unvarying routine and repetition, a manager could settle into a role at the top of the organization and always be directing actions with great situational awareness. However, we don’t live in such a world. In fact, the rate of change in all aspects of our work and lives is accelerating.

Successful flight departments must learn to operate as an adaptive, agile team, with leadership assumed by the most appropriate person at any given time. Leaders began their careers as followers and will continue to spend a significant amount of their day as a follower - following their boss, clients, customers and stakeholders.

During my single-seat strike-fighter days in the US Navy, the basic combat formation was 2-4 fighters flying abeam with a separation of approximately 1-2nm. Each pilot was assigned a unique sector to search visually and with his or her air-to-air radar. As the flight leader, I would be searching the sector with the highest probability of detecting the enemy. Because preflight intelligence is never 100% accurate, however, the “bandits” sometimes would be detected outside my sector by my wingman at relatively close range.

With mission success depending on rapid reaction in a matter of seconds, we had a specific protocol for passing tactical flight leadership to the pilot with the best situational awareness. Here’s an example of a flight of two FA-18s—call signsWildcat 1 (leader) and Wildcat 2 (wingman or follower):

Wildcat 2: “Wildcat 1, threat, 020, 15, twelve thousand, hot!”
(Translation: “Enemy aircraft bearing 020 degrees, 15nm away, 12 thousand feet, heading our way!”)

Wildcat 1: “Wildcat 2, press!”
(Translation: “You are now the leader and I’m supporting you.”)

Corporate pilots have a similar method for passing positive control of the aircraft from PIC to SIC, ensuring there is no doubt concerning who is flying the jet.

Team Focus

High performance teams operate best when positional leaders are prepared to temporarily be a follower and subordinates are prepared to temporarily assume a leadership role when conditions warrant. This act of dynamic leadership sharing requires planning and training…


  • Under what conditions will leadership be passed?
  • How will the transfer be communicated and acknowledged?
  • What are the new leader’s responsibilities, authority and limits?
  • What are the new follower’s responsibilities, authority and limits?
  • Under what conditions will leadership be returned or assumed by the original leader?
  • How will the reestablishment of the original leader-follower roles be communicated and acknowledged?


  • Discuss and review the items above.
  • Seek opportunities to practice.
  • Debrief occasions when leadership was transferred (or should have been) and lessons learned.

A Good Follower

If being a good follower is crucial to the success of the team, what are the traits of a good follower? After a review of the literature, Dr. Patsy Blackshear noted eight characteristics of exemplary followers. They are:

  1. Willing to set ego aside and function as a team player,
  2. Self-empowered with initiative and a willingness to act,
  3. Persist or have staying power,
  4. Entrepreneurial in approach and spirit with a focus on results and doing what’s necessary to get things done,
  5. Proactive problem-fixer rather than reactive as a problem identifier,
  6. Adaptable, flexible,
  7. Optimistic or positive in approach, and
  8. Seeking continuous improvement and personal development.

It’s interesting to note how these eight traits are also important to being an effective leader.

Taking Action

Consider these steps that you can take to develop better followers on your team and become a better follower yourself.

  • Develop your team. Review the list of exemplary follower traits with your team and discuss how you can help team members improve.
  • Seek feedback. Have the courage to ask your boss or a trusted colleague to provide feedback on your performance as a follower.
  • Plan. Cover the list of planning items to achieve dynamic leadership with a member of your team. Be clear on each item and ensure he or she understands.
  • Practice. Look for opportunities to pass the lead on a few projects and areas of responsibility to members of your team. Seek lessons and improvement.

As flight department manager, you cannot delegate ultimate responsibility for the performance of your team. You will (and should) be held accountable for your decisions. However, if you plan, prepare and practice dynamic leadership and followership, you will be pleasantly surprised that performance, productivity, agility and resilience will significantly improve. You might just be able to take a few days off now and then!

Reference: “The Followership Continuum: A Model for Increasing Organizational Productivity” by
Patsy Baker Blackshear, Ph.D.

Read more about: Leadership

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