Leadership and Followership

  • Published
  • By Col. Joseph Morrissey
  • 253rd Combat Communications Group Commander
In every military unit, leadership and followership are extremely critical to accomplish the mission. First, let's take a look at the definition of these words. The definition of leadership is "the ability to guide, direct, or influence people." The definition of followership is the "fact of being a follower, supporter, or disciple of somebody or something."
Leadership and followership cannot be independent of one another. For an organization to be successful, the leaders need to explain the way forward, set a vector and inspire their Airmen. Good followers will have the ability to anticipate the organization's needs and help the leadership reach the unit's goals.

Recently, I was visiting Gettysburg National Military Park, where a number of great examples of leadership and followership took place. As we all know, Gettysburg was a pivotal battle in the Civil War. While the main battle took place July 1-3, on June 30 Union and Confederate scouting forces first clashed. Brigadier General John Buford, who commanded the Union Cavalry on this day, quickly realized that the Confederate forces had him out numbered (at least 3:1) but instead of retreating he chose to move his force forward and take the high ground. Buford's men understood the importance of the high ground and the criticality of holding it at all cost. He had the cavalry dismount and they defended their position until reinforcements could arrive. This was a bold move because a dismounted cavalry soldier loses one of his strengths, that being the ability to maneuver. Through his leadership and the followership of his soldiers, they were able to hold their ground until the Union's 1st and 11th Corps arrived to reinforce and hold the high ground. Holding this high ground was a strategic advantage which aided the Union in its victory.

Another example took place July 2 on Little Round Top. Then Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on this day, was the commander of the 20th Maine. Little Round Top was the left flank of the Union position at Gettysburg, which was an extremely strategic position and critical to the Union. The Confederates also realized the significance of this position and launched a full assault on this flank. If the Confederates were able to take the hill they would have been able to roll the entire Union line and possibly win the day. Chamberlain's orders from his commander were to hold his position at all cost. The Confederate forces charged the hill a number of times that very hot and humid July day; each time the Union forces were able to push them back. As the day progressed, Chamberlain's soldiers started to run low on ammo. Some of the men had no ammo at all. At this point, the Confederate forces charged the hill for a final time. Realizing the significance of the situation, Chamberlain ordered his men to "fix bayonets" and they charged down the hill to engage the rebel forces from Alabama. This was an extremely daring move but it paid off. The rebels were caught off guard and they were forced to surrender. Historians have found in some of the diaries of Chamberlain's soldiers that they thought he had gone crazy when he ordered the bayonet charge down the hill, yet they followed him without question! By keeping Little Round Top, the Union's left flank was protected and the Union's line was saved.

These are just two examples where leaders made critical decisions, their subordinates followed without question and the end result was Union victory. There are many more examples of such actions at Gettysburg that day.

The Commonwealth lost at least 159 men on those three days. If you have never been to this sacred ground, I highly encourage you to do so. You will not be disappointed.