“Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.”—Peter Drucker

From his seat at the head of the conference room table, the Army Chief of Staff asked the assembled group of senior leaders a question, seeking input on a particularly sticky issue. The others in the room remained quiet, the silence becoming just a bit uncomfortable. Sitting next to the Chief, my new boss—who had only recently taken the reins of command—looked my way. Whether it was his intent or not, I leaned forward from my perch at the other end of the horseshoe-shaped table and proceeded to answer the Chief’s question. The silence was broken, the issue quickly resolved, and the meeting continued on to other topics.

Later on, after the Chief had departed and the generals cleared the room, a colonel approached me. “What was that about? Did it ever occur to you that lieutenant colonels aren’t supposed to speak in these meetings?” He chuckled at his comment, clearly finding humor as he reminded me of my place. Never one to back down, I replied: “Did it ever occur to you that I wouldn’t be included in these meetings if I wasn’t expected to speak?” He stood there, mouth agape. I turned on my heel and left him there, following my boss out to the tarmac and our waiting plane.

I wish I could say that was the only time that ever happened, but it wasn’t. Not even close. At a certain point, I’d come to expect it from certain leaders. Maybe they felt threatened. Maybe they were intimidated on some level. Or maybe they were just terrible human beings. It’s not as if I ever stopped to ask them why they felt obligated to pull rank; somehow, I doubt that would have made things any better.

Before Pulling Rank: 5 Things to Consider

If you’re on the receiving end of someone pulling rank, there really isn’t much you can do about it. As long as you remain respectful and acknowledge that the other person is senior to you in some manner, you’ve done all you can do. On the other hand, if you’re on the delivering end of this equation, there are actions you can and should consider. A little self-awareness and self-control go a long way toward achieving better outcomes, and, to be honest, not becoming the most disliked person in every meeting or engagement.

1. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do.

If you’re in a position of authority, that speaks for itself. You don’t have to browbeat others or resort to feats of strength to prove your worth. Do you feel threatened by other opinions that are different from yours? Does someone junior to you with more experience in an area cause you to question your value? Maybe it’s you and not them.

2. Check your privilege.

If you feel compelled to remind everyone in the room that you’re in charge, then you’re really not. The “just do what you’re told” approach doesn’t sell well to others. Nor do other phrases that seek to establish your dominance over the group. If you’re actually the ranking member of the group, everyone else knows it. Let your actions speak for you.

3. Relook your case.

If you’re trying to sell an idea and no one is buying, the last thing you want to do is use your rank as a trump card. If your case is PowerPoint deep, maybe the smart thing to do is take a step back and explore your options. When others find fault in your case, don’t succumb to the temptation to beat them into submission. If your case is floating on weaksauce, you have no one to blame but yourself.

4. Put yourself in their shoes.

Do you like being reminded that you’re not in charge? Do you enjoy having senior people remind you that McDonald’s is hiring? Do you look forward to having your ideas swatted down like a fly on a hot summer day? Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself if you’d like to be treated the way you treat them. Maybe that will slow you down a bit.

5. Listen.

Really. With both ears, even. If you’re as good a leader as you like to think you are, then you’ll listen to others. You’ll value their opinions, even the ones that seem contrarian. You’ll take their ideas into consideration and find ways to make others feel like their contributions are valued. All you have to do is listen. It’s not that hard.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.