Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson

“Eventually, a promotion list comes out and your name’s not on it. We’re all replaceable.”

Chatting with my battalion commander after morning standup, I was stunned by the bluntness of his statement. Although he was an exceptional leader and probably the best battalion commander I ever saw in action, he hadn’t been selected for promotion to colonel. And he was so matter of fact about it that I was speechless.

“You have a choice,” he said. “You can get angry. You can get upset. You can yell and scream. But at some point you just have to get back to work and do your job.”

And that’s exactly what he did. He rolled up his sleeves, and he continued to command with dignity. He never stopped being the leader the Army had selected to command. He never complained. He did his job to the best of his abilities until the time came to hand the guidon to someone else. We threw a party, celebrated his accomplishments, and bade him farewell.

Shock and Awe

As anyone who has been passed over for a military promotion will tell you, it’s a sucker punch to the gut bucket. But when that also involves an unceremonious end to your career of choice, it’s a one-two punch that leaves you angry, reeling, and questioning your life choices. And if you don’t see it coming – for whatever reason – it’s like stepping into the ring with Mike Tyson in his prime.

When you hit the mat – and you’re going to hit hard – you’re going to have to make some equally hard choices. And they’re made even harder by the fact that you’re overcome with emotions: anger, frustration, and humiliation, just to name a few. The first choice you make is to pick yourself up off the mat. As Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, was renowned for saying, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” That matters.

Second, give yourself some time to grieve. A major and possibly unexpected change in career trajectory is a traumatic event. Take some time and deal with that grief. Third, take a break from social media. While it’s tempting to vent some of those emotions on your adoring followers, don’t. That never ends well. Fourth, lean into your network. Don’t rush into any decisions; get some advice from people who genuinely care about you and your success. Talk to a mentor. Fifth, work on your confidence. Work out. Read. Take some time for yourself. Build back that confidence. Refresh yourself and your outlook. Finally, sketch out a plan of action and pursue it with singular determination. Create a future that works for you.

It’s all about choices.

Leading with Dignity

He made his choice. I have no doubt that he was crushed. Anyone in the same position would be. But despite what might have been going on beneath the surface, he was still taking the time to teach some valuable lessons to a junior captain with a whole lot of living ahead of him.

1. You’re never as influential as you think you are.

You might exert a terrific amount of influence while you hold a role, but that influence wanes quickly when your time is done.

2. You’re never as invaluable as you want to be.

We’re all invaluable until we’re not.

3. You are replaceable and forgettable.

No one is irreplaceable. Someone will replace you and the institution will go forward without you. Your friends and close colleagues will remember you, but over time your memory will fade.

4. You can’t hurt the institution’s feelings.

It’s normal to want to strike out at the institution that rejected you. Don’t. The institution has no feelings. Success is the best revenge. Your success.

5. Your legacy is a choice.

The more fuel you put into your success, the greater your legacy. Don’t waste energy on anything other than being the best version of yourself. Give back. Pay it forward. Forge your legacy. Share those hard-fought lessons with others. Be a mentor to others.

In the years since we shared that conversation, I’ve had similar ones with countless individuals facing the same circumstances. In many cases, I’ve had to be the one delivering the news that someone’s chosen career has come to an end. Sometimes, that news comes as a surprise; just as many times, they’d seen the punch coming and were prepared for its impact. In every case, however, I’ve been able to offer the same advice shared by a battalion commander more than 30 years ago. What you do next is a matter of choice.


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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 co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.