Leadership and Followership
In 2016, more than 13,000 students graduated from U.S. business schools with MBAs. Undoubtedly, the vast majority took at least one “leadership” class. The concept of leadership has made its way into the core of business education, even into the very application process for business school. And why not? B-schools want alumni who are future CEOs and titans of industry, and their ranks are swollen with students who’ve submitted essays about their desire to “inspire,” or “facilitate change,” or otherwise leverage some other “leadership” quality.
Boss vs. leader, used under license
But wait a minute. Is it possible that 30 years from now, there will be 13,000 CEOs from this latest cohort of MBAs? Probably not. Of course, many B-schools temper their focus on leadership by also emphasizing teamwork. They aim to teach effective communication skills, not just downward, but horizontally as well. Many, however, offer insufficient practice in followership and communicating upward.
Followership has been gaining popularity in business education and organizational psychology, but it has been developed and taught by the military for decades. It is an integral part of effective leadership and involves many other traits including obedience, loyalty, proficiency, courage, and sound judgment. All these traits, and more, are required of Marine officers. As a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, I was familiar with military culture, and I was excited to learn that the Johnson Full-Time MBA program offered a leadership course at the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidate School as one of their many extracurricular leadership programs.
Keep in mind that nearly 100 MBA students of all shapes and sizes from multiple B-schools also made the trip down to Quantico, so the physical demands were not quite as strenuous as the actual officer training—with that said, the Marines definitely know how to get your attention, and fast. Group punishment, while seemingly harsh in the civilian world, is especially effective in a military training environment. Even without any explicit instruction, a group will rapidly learn new behavioral norms when someone invokes the wrath of a Marine drill sergeant upon not just them, but the entire group.
It's not all just yelling and forced exertion, though. During the expedition, I had the opportunity to learn leadership theory from leaders who train future leaders. The officers who graduate from Quantico soon find themselves in command of other Marines in potentially deadly situations, sometimes weeks after graduating, not years. Accordingly, the training focuses not just on physical ability, but effective leadership as well, especially in high-stress, high-stakes scenarios.
My favorite part of the trip was the Leadership Reaction Course, a series of scenarios that is part of the actual evaluation for Marine officers. Students are divided into small groups (“fire teams”), and placed in small “rooms” with props and physical obstacles. The fire team is given a mission, and the team leader must try to guide the team to complete the mission. As in actual officer training, the team leader is being evaluated on their leadership skills, not necessarily on whether the team clears the obstacle. There is a time constraint, forcing the leader to make quick decisions and have the team execute, even if they may not completely understand the obstacle or its challenges. Trust and communication are important, as there is little time for the leader to explain “why” they need something done—it just needs to be done, ASAP.
The expedition concludes with a dinner reception at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, a stunning architectural structure with exhibits chronicling the entire history of the Corps. Students get the opportunity to network with MBAs from other schools, as well as the Marine Corps staff that have been guiding them through the training activities. The expedition is an amazing opportunity that Johnson offers, with lessons and experiences that I will remember well into my future career.
Johnson MBAs at the National Museum of the Marine Corps
A student asked one of the instructors: “In a culture that seems to emphasize obedience without question, what do you do when given an order that seems strategically or tactically unsound, or perhaps even morally questionable?” The captain’s response, in relevant part: “First, if an order is illegal or unconstitutional, you have an obligation to disobey that order. If you disagree with the reasoning behind an order, that’s where it’s important to have an effective relationship with your superior, such that you can privately raise any concerns. However, an effective relationship also means that you have the situational awareness and trust in your superior to determine when a situation requires timely execution. Also, an effective leader will maintain awareness of their role in the bigger picture, and while you may have personal concerns, when it comes time to pass an order on to your direct reports, you will communicate it in such a way as to motivate execution without reservation.”
My main takeaway from the trip (besides a sore back and shoulders): Effective leaders inspire effective followers by modeling effective followership. As a JD/MBA going into corporate taxation, my work is unlikely to directly involve life or death situations, but it will nonetheless require many of the leadership skills learned throughout my time in the military and in school. It will involve gathering information and making decisions to minimize risk. It will require managing personalities and expectations, both on my side of the table as well as the other. It will require that I skillfully execute my role in a much larger picture with many moving parts, and eventually, lead a team in doing so. Going to Quantico on the Johnson Leadership Expedition was an awesome experience, with lessons learned that I will undoubtedly build on throughout my professional career.