“Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.”
– Quintus Arrius, Ben Hur.
The dreadful day has finally arrived. You’ve reached that point in your career where you are resigned to a future of staff work. Not the exciting kind where you’re Jack Ryan pursuing enemies of the state with cutting edge cyber-sleuthing — the other kind where a good day ends with you running down a linoleum-tiled hallway in utter and complete glee because you think you’ve stumbled on “the money slide” that will make you the envy of every other poor soul rowing aimlessly in the bowels of the cubicle farm. No longer will you take pride in the accomplishments of your troops; the glory days of leading patrols and commanding formations are a long-distant memory. Maybe you don’t yet work among the cubicle dwellers, but their distinct odor is just strong enough to foreshadow the doom that awaits you.
You’re facing the career apocalypse that awaits us all one day: a staff assignment.
You make a mean pot of coffee. You were even ingenious enough to learn how to program a Keurig. You get a little tingly when your Jedi-like PowerPoint abilities produce briefing slides that are the awe of lesser staff officers. You stand proud when you can edit an information paper down to a single page. Your staff knife-fighting skills are honed to precision, and you can defend a proposal like a cornered honey badger in a crowded conference room. Whether you admit it or not, you’ve been preparing for this moment your entire career.
If Clausewitz had lived just a bit longer, I’m certain he would have dedicated a thirteenth chapter of On War to the staff. Jomini was a narcissist, devoid of any appreciation for the poor staff monkeys who toiled away their existences in support of the commander. Mahan would have hung staff officers from a yardarm just to demonstrate his disdain for them. Douhet? He would never allow himself to descend to the levels of the unwashed masses of the staff peasants.
But Clausewitz? He knew what mattered, he really did. Deep down in the dark depths of his Prussian soul, he was the consummate staff officer – observant, reflective, and deeply intellectual. So, as you looked ahead to a rendezvous with staff destiny, how can you aspire to the timeless wisdom of Clausewitz? What are the enduring tenets of life on the staff? Well, if it were left up to me, there are a few pearls of wisdom that I think he might have included in a thirteenth chapter of On War.
- Never assign me a task before noon. I work best under pressure, so always wait until after 1700 and then email me everything in your inbox on your way out the door. Make sure to assign deadlines for the following morning, too. That way, I can focus on the task and hand and not be distracted by those people living in my house.
- I am a staff ninja. If you have any guidance or special instructions for a task, by no means should you share them with me. Instead, wait until the task is almost complete to experience your epiphany. I prefer not to be confused with useful information.
- I do my best work in the dark. Always set my deadlines for early in the day, typically after a weekend or a holiday. Make sure I know you need an answer “first thing in the morning.” Nothing makes my spouse happier than staring at the back of my laptop all night long. I don’t have a life, anyway.
- Everything is a priority. If you assign more than one task to me, don’t prioritize them. Half the fun of being overworked is trying to read your mind. I am a psychic, anyway.
- I need a lot of supervision. If something is really important, call or email me every ten minutes to ask for a status update. This helps me to focus. Or, better yet, hover over me while I work and provide in-progress editorial support. My speed and efficiency will increase exponentially.
- Mentoring is overrated. Don’t bother developing me or giving me advice. Instead, wait until my evaluation is due and then explain your expectations. Go ahead and give me a mediocre report. I’m in it for the money, after all.
- I am Oprah in Camouflage. Tell me your problems. I don’t have anything else to do, so feel free to spend an hour or more in my office complaining about your job. I’m sorry you were tasked to write that white paper. No, I won’t write it for you.
- My cubicle is my prison. Do your best to keep me in the office long after everyone else leaves. Keep me in the office while you drone on about that “One time, when I was at…” This place is my personal Guantanamo Bay. Waterboard me while you’re at it. I could go on a hunger strike and you’d still hover over me like a deranged prison guard from Shawshank.
- If you like my work, tell no one. Keep it a secret. Lock it away in the vault. It’s not like I have any career aspirations. This is, after all, my dream job.
- If you don’t like my work, tell everyone. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being the subject of conversation. Beat me, whip me, make me look stupid in public. I was born to be ridiculed.
I may not be as wise or as insightful as Clausewitz, but I do have an inherent appreciation for the challenges of life on staff. And when I start to think that life might get a little better, I need only recall the planning guidance I received prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: “The facts aren’t important. Just make sure the graphics look right.”