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February 4, 2014
By Les Karpluk

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Feb. 4, 2014, Prince Albert, Sask. – The more I embrace the concept of being a student of leadership, the more it becomes clear to me that leadership is a journey and there really isn’t a leadership destination. I really don’t plan to arrive at my leadership destination, and if and when I do, it’s time to call it quits and take up knitting as a hobby.

Feb. 4, 2014, Prince Albert, Sask. – The more I embrace the concept of being a student of leadership, the more it becomes clear to me that leadership is a journey and there really isn’t a leadership destination. I really don’t plan to arrive at my leadership destination, and if and when I do, it’s time to call it quits and take up knitting as a hobby.

I’m glad to hear the terms follower and followership in conversations. In order to decrease any confusion about these terms, it’s prudent to provide a definition of each.

• Follower – a firefighter who believes in what his/her leader believes or who blindly follows and does what others in the group tell him/her to do.
• Followership – the willingness to follow a leader.

There seems to be a misconception that being a follower is a negative thing, and, in fact, some people think the only instance in which being a follower is positive is when the word “good” is placed in front of it. I suppose these individuals would be justified in their belief if all followers blindly did what others told them to do, but I don’t believe this is the case.

Being a follower can be a great thing for any fire department and its leadership. The follower-leader relationship should be symbiotic; the followers should have a positive influence on the leader and the leader should have a positive influence on the followers. If this relationship does not exist, then the leadership in the department is hampered; without followers there can be no leadership.

When followers are competent, confident, and believe in the leader’s vision, then the path for success is laid out. When followers believe in the department’s leadership team, they are more willing to follow the leaders and their visionary directions.

In order to see our departments flourish and achieve success, it’s important to identify four follower-guiding principles.

• Believe in the department leadership – Good followers understand that in order to achieve greatness, some sacrifices will be required. People may be pushed outside of their comfort zones, but when team members understand that building the department is about building professionalism and community partnerships, then its important to support and encourage (yes, encourage) the department leadership team members when they face resistance.

• Protect trust in the follower-leader relationship – Trust is the lifeblood in healthy relationships and without it the department simply cannot flourish. Protecting trust means that trust is more than a concept, it is something valued with such magnitude that protecting it is the hill on which to die.

• Be informed – Followers are more connected to the informal communication lines than leaders, so it’s critical for followers to bring forward information – either good or bad – to ensure the leader is informed. There is nothing worse for a leader than to be moving in a direction and then find out later that the failure was a result of some critical information that was never communicated.

• Be honest – Followers need to feel free to be honest with their leaders, which means they need to be honest with themselves first. Any person can express feelings in a negative way and feel they are being honest. There is a big difference between communicating honestly with covert intentions and communicating honestly to make things better. Honest communication is fostered by a trusting environment and is solely intended to achieve positive results.

I’ve spent some time lately studying followers and followership and I have concluded that I am also on the follower journey. I believe in what the great people of our profession are trying to do in their communities, and I too am willing to follow those leaders who want to make a difference in our world. I’m more than OK with this, and I never plan to take up knitting as a hobby.

Les Karpluk is fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. He is a graduate of the Lakeland College Bachelor of Business in Emergency Services program and Dalhousie University’s Fire Administration and Fire Service Leadership programs. Follow Les on Twitter at @GenesisLes


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