Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Do good followers make good leaders (and teachers)?

The US Air Force Academy has a goal--to produce pilots, navigators, engineers , and other support personnel for the officer corps of the United States Air Force.

This journalist had a goal--to find out if there was any relationship between preparation for leadership (Air Force Academy style), and preparation for teaching (done by departments of education in colleges and universities across the US).

About these ads

My argument was that in preparing leaders, the academy was really preparing teachers; hence I wanted to find out what they did to turn high school graduates into leaders.

I would be less than fair if I didn't explain at the outset that no one I interviewed at the academy was comfortable with my use of the word ''teacher.'' Most did not use it; instead referred to the mandate of the academy to turn out leaders.

But I persisted throughout a magnificent spring day up against the Rocky Mountains in the shadow of the soaring chapel, centerpiece for the tightly-packed, cadet-dominated campus. During the noontime march to lunch, a B-52 bomber slowly passed over the parade ground, bringing oohs and aahs from the assembled watchers.

''You turn out officers,'' I found myself repeating as I met with professors and deans, ''and officers must lead, and leading is teaching. Hence, you want your graduates to know how to teach. Yet, you do not provide the usual teacher-education courses.''

I wasn't so much interested in why the Air Force academy didn't offer up the same teacher-training courses as the University of Colorado as I was in finding out what they did offer that they think helps to turn students into leaders.

Ready for the answer? Shirt tucked in? Shoes polished to a gleam? Head up?

''We teach them to follow orders.''

About these ads

I heard a great deal about followership while talking with Majors and Colonels doubling as instructors and department heads.

The young men and women who come to the academy come, at first, to learn how to follow orders. They have a three-fold task: military training, academics, and athletics.

How to walk, how to stand, how to eat, how to play, how to study, how to march, how to compete, how to fly - these high school graduates (90 percent from the top quarter of their classes)--follow meticulous orders for 24 hours of every cadet day.

''Could a poor follower turn into a good leader?'' The question did not stump these military teachers, but they turned it over in thought before assuring me that was not possible.

''Would they ever skip the learn-to-be-a-good-follower stage of the training and go right into showing the cadets how to be leaders?''

This question got a quick response: ''No.''

Back to the original question: Should future teachers first learn to be followers?

Doesn't starting with taking orders before giving orders, reinforce a kind of ''zealous conservation of obsolence?'' There is that danger, of course, but don't those who would be teachers need to know first what it is like to be a learner--particularly the sort of learner who needs special teaching?

The interviews continued. The structure of the classes was explained.

A squadron consists of 110 cadets--commanded by an officer, but in effect led by cadet officers.

Ten squadrons form a Cadet Group, of which there are four, again each led by cadet officers.

And the entire 4,400 (plus or minus) cadets form a wing, led by a cadet officer.

The 40 squadrons form the basis of an enormous intramural athletic program, led by cadet athletes.

Academic work, with a heavy concentration on math and science leading to a Bachelor of Science degree, is done in classes of about 25 cadets to one instructor.

Here, just as in the military training and the athletic competitions, I was assured by the officer in charge of the faculty that every effort is made to have the students themselves lead discussions, prepare critical papers, and generally participate in the give-and-take of academic knowledge.

''To fly, to fight, to win.'' Repeatedly I was urged to understand that this is what cadets see as the purpose of the academy. And not, as I appeared to be suggesting: to fly, to fight, to teach, and to win.

Yet, I was not dissuaded.

During the four years of military training, as Maj. Kenneth E. Roth explained , every cadet is expected to lead, to train, to be a role model--in other words, to be a teacher.

Col. Phillip Caine confirmed Major Roth's focus on first the building of a good follower as a necessary precedent to good leadership.

The cadet's first year is spent, he explained, learning how to function as a follower; the second year is a transitional one with small stints at leadership and large portions of following orders.

And it is in the third year that almost all training functions are carried out by the cadets themselves. But not without supervision from senior officers; not without proper role models; not without an understanding that there are many different styles of leadership--but one goal that must be met.

Col. Jack Wittry, vice-dean of the faculty, tried hard to back away from my suggestion that teachers were what the cadets were being trained to be.

And then admitted: ''When I walk into a classroom, I want to hear the students participating. I don't want to hear an hour's lecture from an instructor.''

And why is this a goal for this academic dean?

''Because our job is to turn out leaders.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.