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When Your Orders Send You to the Basement


This post is part of a series of weekly professional discussions that occur on Twitter among military leaders in the United States and students and professors at Kings College in London. If you’re interested in participating just “tweet” your response with #CCLKOW

Throughout a career in the military, almost everyone takes on assignments and positions that negatively impact our outlook on continued service. While lying in bed at night, we question whether or not we made the right career decision, and when we wake up, we dread the drive onto base. Some of these assignments even lead to negative experiences where we fall flat on our face, time and time again. The key thing to remember in these assignments is that we have a choice.  Whether it’s working for a toxic leader or spending time in a job that isn’t a great match for our skill sets, we choose the outcome of these experiences.  They can either devastate us or develop us.

Path of Devastation

I’ve served with many officers throughout my career that landed assignments that “broke the camel’s back” and “pushed” them out of the military. Several of these were extremely talented individuals who felt like their current assignment was just a precursor to a career full of downs with no ups. Their positive outlook quickly dimmed into one of constant negativity. They hated their positions so much, that they couldn’t see beyond the next PCS. Several former officers that I’ve spoken to can even name the leader they worked for that “made up their mind” about getting out of the military.  While the profession of arms isn’t for everyone, it is tough watching a great officer or NCO leave the military because of a single assignment or a single individual. They came in with high aspirations, but left feeling defeated.

Path of Development

Every experience we encounter in the military will develop us if we allow it to.  Some of the roles I’ve served in, such as basic training executive officer and assistant to the assistant operations officer, haven’t been the easiest or most rewarding assignments, but they did afford me the opportunity to learn some great lessons that have stayed with me throughout my career. They also exposed me to aspects of the military I didn’t like, which led me to better understand what types of jobs I wanted to seek out along the way.

An example of turning a devastating experience into a developmental one is found in working for a toxic leader. While working for a bad leader is never a dream job for anyone in the military, these individuals can present us with an excellent opportunity for development.  In his book, The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job, Professor Morgan McCall Jr. observed that leaders who’ve worked for a toxic boss, and learned from that experience, turned those less desired traits into guidelines for their own behavior. Some of my own passion and enthusiasm are a direct result of these types of developmental experiences.

The Rocky Road to the Top

Leaders such as George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower, all who are regarded as great captains of war today, were dealt professional setbacks early on in their military careers. These negative experiences could have “pushed” these guys out military service; however, these individuals allowed those experiences to develop them instead.

George Washington

Both Don Higginbotham’s George Washington and the American Military Tradition and David Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing shed some light on our first President’s early military career.  Higginbotham describes Washington’s ambitions of receiving a royal commission from the British crown and how they never materialized, thus demoralizing a young George Washington. Fischer highlights his humiliating defeat during the French and Indian Wars where he had two horses shot out from under him.  While these experiences could have deterred an up-in-coming officer, they didn’t; they developed him. It was during this period of his career that he learned about leading colonists, about dealing with civilians, writing orders, as well as the administration and logistics required for maintaining a large force.  The setbacks of his youth paved the way for the new nation that would follow.

Ulysses S. Grant

In his Memoirs, U.S. Grant recounts some tough setbacks in the winter of 1862 during the Vicksburg Campaign in the western theater of operations. Not only was their animosity between him and his boss, but critics back in the North pronounced him “idle, incompetent, and unfit to command men in an emergency.”  It was during this period in which he saw greener grass on the other side of the fence.  He wished to command a brigade in the eastern theater of operations, where he felt like the main stage of the Civil War was located, and his skills were better suited.  When one of his subordinate officers suggested that Grant make an application to leave the command and serve in the east (we all hate to see a good leader get hammered), Grant told him about a principle that he lived by: “In positions of great responsibility everyone should do his duty to the best of his ability where assigned by a competent authority, without application or the use of influence to change his position.” The position that he refused to leave would eventually become a stepping stone to leading the Union Army to victory.

Dwight Eisenhower

One of my favorite articles from Military Review is Robert C. Carroll’s The Making of a Leader: Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Carroll follows the career of Eisenhower and highlights his numerous “career-ending” jobs, and how those positions developed Ike into the great leader he eventually became.  He wrote the piece to “inspire the occasional Army officer who faces a career assignment not preordained by conventional wisdom to be on the perfect glide path to greatness.”

Not all of our experiences in the military are going to be glamorous or success stories, but every single experience offers us a lesson or two.  In the end, diversity and adversity can develop us into stronger leaders and how we choose to accept that experience will either devastate us or develop us.

This brings us to this week’s discussion question:

As leaders, how can we get the most out of career setbacks, tough assignments, and bad bosses? Additionally, how can we help subordinates or those we mentor through these experiences?

10 thoughts on “When Your Orders Send You to the Basement”

  1. Just an observation – often it is easier to mentor subordinates through these experiences than it is easier to go through them ourselves.

    When I had one of “those” assignments, I found something in it that I really liked and devoted energy to and that theme became the foundation for the next few postings in my career.

  2. I’ve found every word of this post to be absolutely true in my own career as well. One of my favorite quotes is:

    “It’s easy to move out to the sound of the guns when you are marching at the head of the column.”

    The point being that it’s easy to act like a leader, stay motivated about your career, and feel a sense of fulfillment about your career when you are in front of a formation or in a similar green tab position. It’s much harder to still act like a leader, stay motivated, and find a sense of fulfillment when you are at the proverbial ‘rear of the column’ where no one is watching. The thankless staff jobs, the unglorious additional duties, and less desirable assignments are where leader’s true character is tested and developed.

    If all leaders keep the attitude of using each job, assignment, position as a stepping stone to their next one, then every experience will be one step amongst many towards making us all better leaders. We should all seek to learn something, develop in a new way, and improve with every assignment, job, duty given.

    • I wish I’d read this a couple years ago. Some great insights that I am very grateful for. I am currently in one of those thankless staff jobs, trying to reconcile a career setback while I’m at it and on the fence as to staying in the Army or not. Great points made, thanks

  3. My first mentor told me early on, “In life’s journey never close the door on people or positions, you may have to use it one day.” Those words have been true more times than I can count. I find many of my leadership situations are resolved from lessons learned in my yesteryears because those doors remained open. In my younger days I constantly had to remind myself my perceptions sometimes biased my view so I only saw green on the otherside of the fence. As I matured, it was experience that taught me the green I was seeing was either one, not grass, or two, if it was grass, I had no idea how deep it was. Every assignment I get is approached as if assuming a fighting positon. First ensure security, then spend rest of the time in that position improving the foxhole until it was time to move out.

    • “Every assignment I get is approached as if assuming a fighting positon. First ensure security, then spend rest of the time in that position improving the foxhole until it was time to move out.”

      Grinny, what an outstanding outlook! Thanks for drawing the analogy.

  4. My comments focus on an Army officer career track………

    The Army career path used for so long focuses officers towards command. This focus blurs the importance of non-command related leadership positions. I believe this is the genesis of the “basement mentality”, when one is given an assignment that isn’t on the scripted path to command. From early on, an officer is told he/she needs to be a platoon leader and line company XO to be a line company commander; be a line battlion/brigade S3 and XO to be competitive for line battalion command, etc. You notice I used “line” as the preferred type of assignment. Anything other than an operational/line assignment was looked at as non career enhancing.

    I speak from personal experience; when I was selected to command a Basic Training Company, my PERSCOM assignments officer told me I wouldn’t be competitive for resident CGSC and LTC because of the type of command I was slated for. Yes, I said “slated”. I hadn’t taken command yet when provided this advice. I was also told; “start non-resident CGSC soonest if I envisioned a career after captain. As a basic training commander, I had no chance of resident CGSC”. I completed command and strongly considered leaving the Army becaused I’d been sent to the “basement”.

    In a successful 20-year career, an officer is fortunate to command “one” time. Most never command above company-level. This is where I believe the Army can get after changing the “basement mentality”. The Army must inform and educate officers that, “you are a career staff officer with rarest of opportunites to command”. As a staff officer you have unlimited leadership opportunities and responsibility, just not the “yes and no” decision authority that comes with command. Your job is to participate as a member of or lead a staff to do hard, detailed work and provide informed recommendations to decision makers. Everyone wants to be Chief of Staff of the Army but in the immortal words of the Highlander, “there can be only one”.

    By doing your job, in whatever assignment you are given, to the best of your ability, you will be successful. There are no basement jobs, just the perception there is a basement.

    • Jay,
      You’ve got some good points here, particularly “There are no basement jobs, just the perception there is a basement.” The current career environment in the Army is that performance trumps everything else, including the type of job and the time spent in it. You can spend 36 months as a battalion S3/XO, but if you get a Center of Mass report in those jobs, you significantly decrease your battalion command chances. Conversely, highly enumerated Above Center of Mass reports over 18 months of key time will sit much stronger with the promotion/command boards.

      Yes, previous jobs do play a part in future jobs because skillsets build and prepare officers for the future. But there are lots of officers who have proven otherwise by transitioning from Training to Tactical command in their careers. Regardless, the CSA’s guidance with the new command selection process is that we need the best officers in all commands because…(and I love this)…every one of our Soldiers deserves good leadership. Prejudice against one type of command indicates a devaluing of the Soldiers serving there and is, in my mind (and the CSA’s, I think), unacceptable.

      Command is a privilege, wherever one is asked to serve.

  5. As for ‘toxic leaders’ take the words of ‘Lord Chelmsford’ (Zulu Dawn) – ‘Learn nothing from that man except how not to behave . . .’ Therein is the lesson of the toxic leader, cheers!


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