Followership: Supervisors must ‘Be the Light’

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Ken O'Neil
  • 509th Security Forces Squadron commander
Followership is a critical competency in a young force, and I recently witnessed a pretty cool analogy as to what helps the follower "make it" in today's Air Force and move on to leadership.

The idea came to me while I was watching a documentary about sea turtles. As commander of the squadron with the largest number of first term Airmen on base, I've seen first-hand how newly hatched sea turtles and our first-duty-station Airmen face similar challenges while trying to follow.

The similarities between first-term Airmen and sea turtles show how difficult the beginning stages can be for any newcomer.

There are many obstacles, threats and challenges that stand between the newly hatched sea turtle and its ocean habitat. It takes a week for our new Airmen to get through the First Term Airman Center program, whereas it takes the newly hatched sea turtle about the same amount of time to break out of its shell and climb through its sandy nesting spot to the surface of the beach.

Coincidence? I don't think so.

Whether the newcomer pops his or her head up on a sandy beach or into the front doors of their first unit of assignment ... the journey begins.

Ten minutes into the documentary about sea turtles, you have to wonder how the fragile newborn sea turtles make it to the water. They do so by following the moon's reflection on the water; bright light leads them to the ocean.

Our newly minted officers and junior Airmen also follow a light of sorts. They follow the light set by their first supervisor. The supervisors must take a personal interest in helping the young Airmen make it through their own beach and it to the ocean. They have to mentor, tutor, coach and guide them over the obstacles they'll encounter in their first enlistment and be strong and bright enough to pull the young Airmen back on track if they stray off course.

Newborn sea turtles may and head for the biggest, brightest light on the open horizon. Sometimes, they'll head for the local bonfire or nearby street lights, instead of the moon's reflection on the water, and this can lead to their untimely end. An involved supervisor's light must be, let's say, brighter to Airmen than the other lights that they'll encounter along their journey, especially the lights that say "Joe's Bar" or any other local temptations that could pull the young Airmen outside of their core values and off course.

A good supervisor's light is powered by his or her example, adherence to the core values and their involved leadership.

Newborn sea turtles rely on their instinct to make it through the sandy beach to the moonlight over the water, trying to overcome the sand dunes, a hungry flock of sea gulls or a curious 8-year-old tourist.

For Airmen, instinct will only get you so far--the supervisor, aside from "being the light," is also there to coach and cheer on their followers to help them through the obstacles they'll face.
Supervisors must know their followers, understand them, and be there for them ... guiding them all of the way.

For all of you supervisors out there, be the light to our junior Airmen. Shine so brightly that they will want to follow you, and only you and not follow the other distractions in their path. For all of you junior Airmen out there, follow them ... they'll take you places.