…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…
…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?