The Role of Luck in Becoming a Successful Officer

If…

…you were born into 0.4% of the US population
…you avoided serious criminal offenses as an adolescent
…you can do push ups, sit ups, and run
…you stumbled upon worthwhile mentors who taught you the basics of leadership
…you were placed in a branch that at least mildly aligned with your passions
…you didn’t get a course-ending case of cellulitis in Ranger School
…you got orders to a unit with a legitimate operational future, where you could gain valuable experience
…you joined a unit with NCOs who cared about developing junior officers
…you didn’t get someone killed at your first live fire range…

luck

Retired Lt. Col. Alissa Turner places the general officer rank on her husband, Brig. Gen. William Turner’s, Field Artillery School commandant and chief of FA, uniform during his promotion ceremony Oct. 9, 2014 on Old Post Quadrangle. Photo Credit: Ms. Marie Berberea

And if…

…you (again) avoided serious offenses like DUIs and fraternization
…you didn’t lose too many expensive property items during your company command
…you managed to keep your language generally free of investigation-producing, inappropriate sexual, gender, and race-related comments
…you didn’t get someone killed at any live fire range
…you managed to avoid getting sucked into a unit command team who all got fired for toxic leadership
…you avoided pissing off HRC
…you had the very fortunate timing to be selected for key broadening positions throughout your career
…you, even in your 40s, could still do push ups, sit ups, and run
…you weren’t stricken by a serious family emergency which, while unfortunate, took you off the predetermined “path to success”
…you somehow found a mentor who would someday become a general officer
…you had a long, unbroken streak of commanders who knew the secret language of the Officer Evaluation Report, knew you well enough to give you a good evaluation, and had the senior rater profile to help you out…

…then you still might not make it.

Luck and Success

Many of these are uncontrollable. But if you managed to avoid the pitfalls, meet the right people, and pass the appropriate gates, then you’re left with what you can control:  your reaction to failure, your initiative as a member of a team and leader, your performance during critical situations, and your commitment to growing into an officer who can succeed at senior levels. And yes, even if all the luck comes your way, becoming a high-performer is extremely challenging. Ascending the military ranks ends up looking like a case study from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

In subsequent posts, Steve Leonard of DoctrineMan!! and Nate Finney of The Strategy Bridge have each offered their thoughts about the capricious nature of luck, opportunity, timing, and networking in the course of a successful career (which is itself a debatable label).

To kick it off, here are my thoughts in light of the fact that no one becomes a success without a heavy dose of luck:

Draw a line. There are too many variables involved to attach your self-worth to your career path. Save you and your family a lot of heartache by not getting fixated on a specific rank, a certain type of command, or a minimum number of years in service. Heed the words of Colin Powell, who said,

“Never let your ego get so close to your position
that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.”

Prioritize having an influence. The great thing about nearly every job in the military is that it connects you with people. And you don’t need rank or a title to have a positive influence. Focus on maximizing the opportunities you have to influence others and you’ll gain a new perspective of what it means to be a success.

Pivot the spotlight down. When given the opportunity to lead people and teams, highlight the talent of those below you. The spotlight naturally falls on the commander, but the organization is full of potential stars. Being in charge allows you to let that talent shine.

Create an environment for luck. The milestones that make up a successful career appear both by chance and by intention…an unexpected encounter leads to a key mentorship; a school application is finally accepted; someone gets fired and now it’s your turn. Through policies, guidance, and mentorship, leaders can affect that environment for their organization, giving the best people the best chance to succeed. How can you be the leader who encourages talent to thrive instead of stifling it?

Questions for Leaders

  • Have you defined what “success” means for you and your family?
  • In what ways could you be “successful” that are not subject to uncontrollable factors?
  • Think about the opportunities that have come your way throughout your career. Are you tuned-in to help enable those same opportunities for your people?

Check out the reaction posts by Nate Finney (Proactive Luck) and Steve Leonard (Luck Be a Lady)!

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Latosha Floyd

    This article seems to implicitly identify “success” with pinning on a star. That’s a bad way to start a valid discussion on success. The military promotion system pretty builds the model of success as retiring at or near 20 years as an O5. A small percentage of individuals will ascend to O6 and beyond. Our Army is too big for individuals to get sucked into the lie that O6 and beyond = success. Success is tied to accomplishment of the mission and/or personal/career goals.

    I have met many successful officers. Even officers who retired as CPTs, MAJs, and LTCs after having served numerous years as an enlisted Soldier.

    • That’s exactly right, and you make a point that we emphasized frequently working at the desks of HRC. Success is a moving, individual, and intangible target. (Notice that I wrote success in quotation marks.) That’s why Powell’s advice is so important. If people buy into a belief that success is “X” level, but only 2% of the people attain that level…we’re just hurting our people and creating false hope. We have to move the standard of success to whatever is important for the individual.

      Joe Byerly of From the Green Notebook has offered a guest post on this topic which will come out soon on this site. Be sure to look for it!

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  • CDR

    I would not necessarily attribute it to luck, though that can help. There is a difference between being a good officer and being a “successful” officer. Don’t confuse the two. There are a bunch of great Americans out there who are working hard and are good at being good, but not too good at being successful. They lack the smoothness and the instincts to get along with the right people, make the right connections, and be in the right place at the right time to get noticed and known. They would just rather get on with things and get the job done. There are a few, very talented folks who are both good and successful. They work hard, do well, and have the instincts for good timing and getting ahead without compromising themselves. Then there are the guys who are not particularly good, but are skilled at being successful. These are the types who are all show and no go. They have perfected the fine art of building and leveraging relationships. They often get far because they “brief well” but usually get found out when they hit a true leadership crisis or their sponsors retire. When it comes down to it focus on being good, not on being successful.

    • Thanks for your comment. Sounds like the key is creating a system that 1) exposes the “not so good” before they become too influential and 2) draws successful traits out of people and promotes their influence. This is the leader’s job, I believe.

  • Scott

    So many of these factors appear to be related to measuring success from the officer’s point of view. Yes, at the end of the day each of us wants to look back over our 5, 10, 20, or 30 years of service and say that, from our point of view, we had a successful career. However, what is missing here is the idea that my service and leadership are not just about me but about those with whom I serve. So you didn’t get that great job at Fort Fill-in-the-Blank or you took a center-of-mass OER because your senior rater had an immature profile. Even given these things, did you show up to work every day willing to push ahead while taking care of those around you? I think this falls under the heading of selfless service, one of those core values they made us memorize back in the day. Your success is measured by so many people in so many different ways.

    As CS Lewis said in his most-excellent essay “The Inner Ring”: “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.”