The Foreign Service Journal - January/February 2017
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everal years ago, I interviewed a Presidential

Management Fellow candidate who, flush

with enthusiasm, told me how much she

wanted to lead people. She passionately

described how, as a Peace Corps Volun-

teer, she had led the effort to bring water to

villages in Honduras, overcoming all sorts

of obstacles, and concluded with a rousing

plea: “I want to lead! I want to lead!”

“Wonderful,” I replied. “But would you like to follow? We

really need followers right now.”

I can be


a buzzkill sometimes.

But I was trying to make a serious point. The U.S. government

and the private sector devote enormous energy and resources

to the subject of leadership. The Federal Executive Institute is

dedicated to “helping executives perform effectively as the top

Developing the

Next Generation


Followers at USAID

We need to better understand followership—not just because it essentially

complements leadership, but for its own specific qualities.



José M. Garzón is a retired Foreign Service officer who spent

three decades working for the U.S. Agency for International

Development managing democracy, governance and con-

flict programs. He nowmentors and trains the next genera-

tion of development professionals, serving as co-chair of the Strength-

ening USAID Committee of the USAID Alumni Association, a Payne

Fellowmentor and as an adjunct professor at American University’s

School of International Service. He is the author of “Hispanic Represen- tation at USAID: Why So Low for So Long?” (March 2014 FSJ ).

leaders.” The stated purpose of the National Defense University

is “Educating, Developing and Inspiring National Security Lead-


Leadership is also among the promotion precepts for FSOs,

and everyone is rated against that precept. We take for granted

that, with greater experience, every employee should assume

greater leadership responsibilities. And why not? Who wants to

become a follower? To be called a follower is nearly a profes-

sional insult: supposedly, followers don’t make things happen,

they don’t make a difference. No inspirational poster ever says

“You, too, can be a follower!”

But with all this leadership, is anyone following? Who is

selected, trained or rewarded for following? And without follow-

ers, is anyone actually leading? This is not a trivial question, as

followership cannot be assumed.

Many would-be leaders who have charged up a hill have

found themselves in a lonely place. Part of the problem is that we

tend to confuse leadership with holding a leadership position.

But all of us know people who are put in such jobs who are not

leaders and would contribute much more by holding what I call

a followership position.

Moreover, not everyone in the Foreign Service wants to be

a leader, but may feel compelled to contort themselves to fit

that pigeonhole—an unfortunate waste of talent. Even if we

accept the narrow bureaucratic concept of leadership, everyone

in a leadership position is still in a position of followership to