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The followership formula: How good followers make good leaders

The legacy of followership is true to the past and focused on the future


It is the job of leaders to define effective followership and understand how it is supposed to fit into a successful management system without upsetting command and control, or worse, jeopardizing the safety of the fireground.


As an officer in the fire service, you likely have many certificates in your training folder. As you peruse this documentation, you might begin to see a pattern of words emerge – words like authority, command, executive and leadership. It is almost a guarantee, however, that there is not one document in your portfolio that distinguishes your achievement in followership.

Like most organizations, the fire service has no real working definition of a “good follower.” Ironically, it is the job of leaders to define effective followership and understand how it is supposed to fit into a successful management system without upsetting command and control, or worse, jeopardizing the safety of the fireground.

Interestingly enough, it is only recently that the military, corporations, businesses and various universities have conducted studies specific to the role of followership in an attempt to understand it. Here’s what they found:

  • Military: Emphasizing chain of command, the military sees followership as essential, noting the significance of, for example, thousands of teenage mechanics working on the most sophisticated combat jets.
  • Corporations: Despite their many consultants, workshops and seminars, corporations tend to see followership as a type of character flaw that could possibly lead to a lessening of profits if not controlled. In the business world, no one is truly satisfied or successful unless they are at the top; therefore, no one really wants to be a follower – at least, not for long.
  • Universities: Educators see followership as necessary to the survival of any social network, but they study it by looking into the microscope backward. That is, they study all the significant human traits that characterize a great leader, only to repackage them as technical descriptions of followership.

While this information is insightful, for firefighters and officers looking for behavioral tools, these insights lack the hands-on application they have come to expect in their training.

The evolution of speaking up

In the distant past of bucket brigades and bed keys, followership was taken literally. Firegrounds were large, complicated and dangerous places. Communications at fire scenes were poor at best, relying on voices through brass trumpets to control a vast sea of men and machines.

It was imperative for everyone’s safety that instructions were carried out with focus and determination, whether they were understood or not. Early handheld radio communication was spotty and often led to misunderstanding and confusion. It was better to have a clear game plan going in and stick to it. For years, the most effective way to run a large fire was by “following orders to the letter” because they were most likely issued only once. Tragedies were unavoidable when situations changed on the inside while no one knew on the outside and yet, with noble conviction, orders were carried out … until the end.

With the introduction of incident command and crisis management concepts, along with more advanced communication technology, orders transmitted were easier to give and receive. Because information was allowed with either one’s immediate subordinate or superior, changes could be made in a straightforward manner. Suddenly, good ideas presented in a timely fashion became procedurally appropriate to both firefighters and officers alike, valuable regardless of who and where they came from. Followership had become an active and workable concept, not just some passive philosophy of unquestioning obedience and traditional loyalty.

Today, we couple this “new command communication” with education and training to create an environment of followership, one in which participants have more to contribute than blind obedience. Further, firefighters are becoming highly trained and adept at confident decision-making in line with the goals of command. There is the realization that the “strong, silent type” may not be the most effective firefighter. They are following with leadership instincts and assurance – the progression of hope.

Defining a good follower

Researchers describe followers as “impulsive or compulsive,” “pragmatic or alienated,” “isolationists or activists,” “implementers or individualists” – the list goes on. Regardless of the endless classifications, most scholars agree that the traits of followers are akin to those found in great leaders.

What separates followers from leaders – and ultimately defines them – is not classification by type or personal traits but rather their role in any situation. How an individual reacts to a particular set of circumstances and their ability to transition seamlessly from an effective leader to a supportive follower and back again determines their function at any given time.

Good followers, like great leaders, are asked to think for themselves. They are driven to go above and beyond any situation and still support the team. Followers must see the path toward progress clearly and take with them a structured set of values borne of critical review and the acceptance of new ideas, both theirs and their leaders.

This is not to say there are no clear roles in the fire service, but rank and command are not enough. In the past, the fire service focused on the definition of roles and spent little time on their suitable values.

Followership principles

The first step in understanding these values is to recognize the principles of good followership. Firefighters are ready to listen to good advice but need to have solid reasoning behind all actions. Firefighters should have faith in their leaders, but it must be a devotion supported by collective agreement and not just by charisma.

Followership is not as simple as it sounds, as there are several principles that distinguish between good and bad followership:

  • There are more ideas conceived than decisions made, just as there are more followers than leaders. Allow for time and the consideration of consequences when you present an idea, especially during a crisis.
  • Ideas are spatial and decisions are linear. Ideas, whatever their origination, must be implemented in order. You must understand the value of order as well as the importance of ideas. Your idea may be of value but simply out of order.
  • Ideas must be presented in an appropriate manner. Learn your department’s cultural criteria for the presentation of ideas. You may have to wait. Patience is not only a virtue, it is a tactical consideration.
  • Be pure in motive. Ideas, to be effective, cannot be presented with the thought of reward. The desire for appreciation obscures the clear evaluation and utilization of ideas. To expedite a solution is its own reward – or at least it should be.
  • The job of a good follower is to provide support, remembering that loyalty travels in all directions.
  • Critical thinking, objective analysis, and initiative are the keys to successful followership.
  • Pay attention at all times and listen, especially before presenting ideas.
  • Reliability and consistency are reflected in good followership.
  • Trust and honesty are the cornerstones of both leadership and followership.
  • Accept responsibility whenever appropriate.

The followership formula

It’s important to remember the formula for successful followership: Followership = Foundation + Focus + Follow-through.

  • Foundation: Build a good foundation of education and training so that you become a problem-solver whom everyone depends upon for answers. Know that by the sheer volume of work you undertake, you will be recognized as an effective follower and a future leader. Good ideas combined with a solid work ethic speak volumes. Further, be the best teammate you can be. Help others and take pride and satisfaction from group accomplishments. Create a supportive environment for leadership success. This will translate to triumph and loyalty at all levels.
  • Focus: Amid a world of multi-tasking, infinite inputs, smartphones and endless social media channels, the ability to focus is becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain. We tire easily, especially if the assignment is not interesting or inappropriate to our professional goals or personal satisfaction. We become easily distracted and find any excuse to move our attention to passive entertainment. Discipline, practice and time management are the keys to successful focusing of the mind. Remember, “make time to task.”
  • Follow-through: This is where the rubber meets the road. Ideas are cheap and plentiful. Ideas only become valuable when they are utilized in an effective and meaningful way. This means commitment, tenacity, work and the willingness to take a risk. Presentation is only the beginning. You must be willing to battle for your beliefs. Ideas exist only in their implementation.

Beyond the “safe zone”

The follower’s motto: “Better to bring one solution to the table than a list of problems.”

In our history, we have all heard about fire departments steeped in tradition and unsullied by progress. Even couched in humor, these staunch and stoic pockets of long ago are coming around to the realization that when it comes to managing a group of firefighters, submissive behavior is a slow, unimaginative and potentially dangerous way to run a fire, firehouse or even an entire organization.

A fire department that lacks argumentative insight and the freedom to express ideas outside some perceived “safe zone” is doomed to failure or worse.

For years, the emphasis has been on leadership and for good reason. Changing times have brought to the fire service the challenge of managing a new breed of firefighter, one who is not only strong, brave and true but also knowledgeable, empowered and demanding. Because of these members, officers are becoming a leadership of responsible compassion, reasonable explanations and synergistic success.

Fire service culture is changing, and a new paradigm is being found. By nurturing the elements of trust and integrity within an accepted code of conduct, we ensure ourselves – independent of fear and rich in imagination and productivity – the ability to progress.

This is the legacy of followership – true to the past and focused on the future.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.