By. Colonel Curt Taylor
I recently heard General Dave Perkins, the Commanding General of TRADOC, describe a funeral for a senior general officer long retired. At the funeral he noted the attendance of several middle-aged men who had served as squad leaders under this general decades before when he had been a battalion commander. So powerful had been his impact that they felt the need to be present when the ‘old man’ was finally laid to rest many years later.
General Perkins then challenged the audience to define the success of our careers not by the rank we attain but by the question, “Would your squad leaders attend your funeral?” Reframing the experience of a military profession in this way transforms our priorities and our very definition of success. It alters our calculus from a focus on ourselves and a nervous anxiety over the next promotion board, to a focus on others and a desire to improve our own leadership skills because of the impact it has on the people that we lead.
The Army is full of first sergeants and lieutenant colonels who had lasting, lifelong impact on generations of soldiers, but for reasons of luck and timing failed to achieve the rank that their potential warranted. The opposite is true as well. All of us have met the narcissistic careerist who displays brilliance at the key moment but fails to engender a lasting loyalty in the people with whom he serves. Such behavior can and often does lead to advancement in an organization that is rightly focused on producing results. But this leader and the causes he championed are quickly forgotten when the torch inevitably passes to a younger man or woman. Which are you? And how do we organize and define our careers to prioritize the impact we have on others over the rank or office that we hold?
Colonel John Boyd was one of the finest fighter pilots the US Air Force ever produced. Creator of the famous OODA-loop concept, he transformed the Air Force’s thinking about air-to-air combat. Throughout his career he struggled against the Air Force bureaucracy and often found himself on the outside of the inner circle. Reflecting on that experience, he offered this excellent advice:
To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?
To be or to do? To pursue substance over title, consequence over prestige. We would all hope to achieve both in life, but reality is never that simple. While the choice is never black and white, how we value those competing alternatives will shape every interaction and decision that we make as leaders.
As a brigade commander, I spent a lot of time counseling young officers about the next step on their career path. No doubt, there are important tactical moves for those who seek to continue up the ladder. But the danger begins when we allow tactics to become a substitute for strategy. If the purpose of our career is to have lasting impact on those we lead, then our strategy for success does not require any particular path but a concerted and focused effort, through reading, reflection and study of role models, to improve our leadership abilities every day. Only then can we have the impact on others that the awesome responsibility of military leadership demands.
David Brooks, a NYT best-selling author, reminds us that, over a lifetime, we weave two stories. The first is our resume and, the second is our eulogy. Both tell the story of who we are and how we lived. The first story recounts titles, activity, and achievement. The second is one of relationships, investment, and impact. Which story will become the defining narrative of our life and its ultimate measure of success? This is perhaps one of the deepest questions that each of us has to answer in a military career.
Colonel Curt Taylor is an Armor Officer in the United States Army. He recently commanded the 1st Stryker Infantry Brigade in the 4th Infantry Division.