Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way


When I reported to my first duty station in the Air Force, after completing basic training, my supervisor had a sign hanging above his desk which simply stated, “Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way! ”

I would see that quote often in my career and hear it brought up in various rah-rah speeches and ceremonies. It’s attributed to General George Patton and possibly Thomas Paine before him. Regardless of its origin, it’s powerful. It’s all about action, taking hills and pushing forward.

When I joined the Air Force, it made a lot of sense to me – and from a general sense, it still does. You see, when I joined the Air Force, the military was much bigger. In 1984, the active duty strength of the Air Force was over 597,000 and would surpass 600,000 during my first enlistment. There were layers upon layers of supervision. There were robust training offices, and overall, manning was good. There were places to hide people if necessary. I remember all too well people being assigned as Chief of Special Projects or other benign titles. In effect, you could get out of the way and the mission could still get accomplished.

But the world has changed quite a bit since I was a fresh-faced airman first class signing into Andersen Air Force Base on the island of Guam. Since 1984, the Air Force’s active duty strength has declined to 321,000 for 2017. The sister services experienced similar drops during that timeframe. Interestingly, the overall federal workforce is fairly close to the 1984 numbers, but there are more agencies now, and individual departments have seen staff reductions. Yet, mission demands and requirements continue to increase. Most people have heard the phrase “do more with less, and at some point, have come to realize there comes a time when you end up “doing less with less.”

With all these changes in mind, I believe the axiom needs to be updated to fit the current realities most of us face in our various government agencies. So if I was hanging up the new sign behind my desk, it would now read Lead, Follow, or Get Out!

It’s just the deletion of three words, but it dramatically changes the context of the saying. We absolutely need strong leadership, and our operations are driven by dynamic followers. But in our fast-paced, high-demand world, we don’t have the luxury of people getting out of the way. With the ever-present threat of government shutdowns and downsizing initiatives, we need contributions from every team member.

In order to do that, we need to recognize and reward employees who are performing at high levels, while holding those who don’t accountable. That seems rather logical, but a significant number of federal government employees don’t believe that’s happening. According to the Office of Personnel Management in its 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Governmentwide Management Report, two of the four highest negative indicators are related to these seemingly logical needs.

Over 485,000 employees participated in the survey. Here’s some significant data to consider from two of the survey rating areas:

In my work unit, differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way. Only 35 percent of survey participants responded positively, and 29 percent were neutral. That left 36 percent responding negatively, and this was the fourth highest negative indicator in the survey.

In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve. This only generated a 31 percent positive response and 27 percent for neutral. The 42 percent negative response rate was the second highest negative indicator in the survey. The only higher response dealt with whether pay raises depended on how well employees perform their job.

What does this tell us? Well, let’s add some data points first. Here are the top three highest positive indicators from the same survey:

  • When needed, I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done (96 percent)
  • I am constantly looking for ways to do my job better (91 percent)
  • The work I do is important (91 percent)

So now what this tells us is employees place a great deal of emphasis on their jobs and for doing them well. Unfortunately, they don’t see a correlation in terms of recognition, and they don’t believe those who don’t perform up to standards are being held accountable. Whether these perceptions are fully accurate or not, they are the perceptions of almost a half million people. It’s a disconnect organizational leaders must take into account.

Let’s be honest. Holding people accountable is difficult. It requires paperwork and difficult conversations. It is time-consuming, and often there will be hurt feelings. Certainly not fun stuff. So all too often, we let small things slide and give a pass when a deadline is missed. All the while, the rest of the work center is observing and waiting for that moment when the poor performer is finally taken to task. But when it doesn’t happen, we’re just letting the person get out of the way.

Leadership takes a certain dose of courage coupled with a desire to take care of one’s employees. Taking care of your folks can mean patting them on the back, putting them in for a promotion and developing them. But it also means holding those employees who aren’t meeting standards accountable. It takes an investment of your time and your effort. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. We’ve got important work to do, so it’s time for all of us to Lead, Follow or Get Out!


Brian Schooley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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William L. Prusak

Great post! If I had to sum up my leadership strategy, it would encompass “Be, Know and Do”, which many will recognize as the mantra of non-commissioned officers in the U.S. Army. This means, to me at least, always be a professional – set the example for others; know your job and how your job supports the overall mission of your organization or unit and finally, walk the walk, do your job to the best of your ability to do so.

Brian Schooley

Thanks for the comment William and thanks for your service. I love the simplicity of the mantra and agree with every word of it!

Jon Haverly

Great post Brian. It is so important for leaders to hold people accountable.

We can not hold others accountable if we have not truly handed over ownership.

Here are some tips from our leadership research:
* Clearly define ownership upfront
* Give them the majority vote in decisions related to their work
* Invest in their success but avoid retaking ownership
* Expect complete work

A tough part of the job for sure, thanks for the post.

Brian Schooley

Jon…great tips to add to the article. Clear expectations are a must. You used a great word, “invest”. That’s a part of my leadership mantra requiring investing in one’s people…and being genuine!