3 Reasons Why 'Taking a Step Back' is Terrible Advice for Transitioning Military Leaders
When I went to my first career conference as a junior officer, I had 11 one-on-one interviews that resulted in 6 job offers. I crushed it! Some of the offers included starting salaries that exceeded what I was making as a captain at the time. My luck changed when I attended my second career conference as a retiring battalion commander. I didn't have any offers. I had three times the education, more than twice the leadership experience, and a resume crafted by one of the top business schools in the country, and yet I didn't have a single interview. Not one. I walked out of my third career conference when it became clear that the outcome was going to be the same as the previous one. By this time, I was nearing retirement. My anxiety was approaching desperation. I was looking for guidance, and the advice I received was to "manage expectations" and be prepared to "take a step back."
It sounded reasonable at the time, so I took that step backwards and spent the next 2 years trying to get back to my original stepping off point. What I've learned from that experience are the following 3 reasons why "stepping back" is terrible advice for transitioning military leaders: (1) It is contrary to the psychological and spiritual imperatives for personal growth; (2) The scarcity approach limits your perspective and options to discover a meaningful career; and (3) "Take a Step Back" reinforces the narrative of "Not Good Enough" that ultimately derails the deeper challenge of civilian reintegration.
Grow or Die
"Take a Step Back" defies the anthropological precedence for returning warriors back into society. In primitive cultures, warriors returned from the battlefield and ascended into prominent positions within the community. Military leaders became the wise elders, statesmen, and chieftains for the tribe. They repurposed the wisdom from their experience and embraced a larger responsibility to improve the social order. They continued their lives along a cycle of growth. They became something more.
When you stop growing psychologically, professionally, spiritually, or in any other area of life, that area immediately begins to die.
Too many veterans stagnate in life after the military. The reason why they feel stuck is because in every area of life, you either grow or die. What dies when you "take a step back" is your sense of purpose. Soon to follow is the joy and passion for life. We get stuck when we make the conscious decision to settle or - even worse - move backwards.
We postpone living our lives for the expediency and security of a job in the moment. We convince ourselves that the job is just temporary until we have enough money saved up to do something else. Then a year passes . . . and another . . . and another. Before you know it we are five years removed from the military and sleepwalking our way through life. The only passion we feel is when we conjure our memories from the past. The reason why you feel like you are meant for something more is because you are. "Take a Step Back" simply defies the psychological and spiritual imperatives for continued growth.
The Scarcity Mindset
Fear of failure triggers our survival mechanism. We worry about the mortgage, the tuition, and the dreadful prospect of living paycheck to paycheck, but honestly, who wants to be the accomplished military leader who can't find a job? Who wants to be that guy? As the retirement or separation date looms near, we limit our focus on just finding a job. We enter the scarcity mindset. With the mantra of "take a step back," we reinforce those catabolic emotions that accompany our instincts for survival. We can't see beyond the security of the paycheck to recognize opportunities to discover a meaningful life of purpose.
Having a job is important, but instead of just looking for a job, what if you committed to having it all? What if you committed to the meaningful job, a sense of purpose, and true happiness? Those answers elude us because we simply never asked ourselves those questions! The path to having it all begins with understanding your WHO and pursuing your WHY. So let me ask you now - What do you want for your life after military service?
If you approach transition from a scarcity perspective (what you must have vs. what you really want), you limit yourself to finding the bare minimum. You will survive, but you won't thrive. When fear from the scarcity mindset drives you, your survival mechanism attunes to your basic needs at the expense of recognizing those opportunities for self-actualization. You don't see them because you aren't looking for them. If you ever "take a step back," it should be to widen your perspective to recognize opportunities while creating the vision for what you want in life beyond the military.
The Narrative of 'Not Good Enough'
When you tell a military leader to "take a step back," the implied narrative is that they are simply not good enough to be hired into a leadership position commensurate with their level of competence, education, and experience. If they were good enough, they would get the job. Consequently, we lower the bar. We begin to question our confidence and sense of self-worth.
The assessment of "not good enough" can carry over in how we approach civilian reintegration. We project an image of "less than" that inhibits our assimilation back into society. We lack the courage to greet our neighbors. We don't talk to the parents from little league or school. We aren't active in our communities. We lack the confidence to express the vulnerability necessary to make meaningful social connections beyond the military community.
We think too little of ourselves because "take a step back" conditions us to think less of ourselves. We accept a "less than" devaluation of our true potential. After all, if that is how an employer quantifies our employability, then it must be the reality. We accept jobs with the same level of responsibility we had 10 or 15 years ago. We feel a sense of shame when we tell our former military colleagues about what we are doing now. We wallow in underachievement and underemployment because we complied with the advice to "take a step back."
A New Perspective for Life Beyond the Military
One of the more common comparisons used to justify the advice to "manage expectations" or "take a step back" is the contention that a civilian CEO doesn't walk into the military and take command of a brigade, battalion, or even a company. That is true. However, it is also true that civilians, many of whom never achieved the level of CEO, assume positions of a greater power than any division commander, general, or admiral in the military. Most of these new hires never served in the military, but we entrust them to write military law, confirm promotions, approve our budget, and tell us when and where to deploy. Reframe your perspective, and you may recognize possibilities that you couldn't see before.
Your perspective is your choice. When you concede to "manage expectations" or "take a step back," you limit your options. Open your mind so that you might recognize opportunities to continue living a meaningful life of purpose.
What I should have realized on the day I walked out of that third career conference was that I alone create the future I want. The same holds true for you. Take charge of your personal growth. Answer the question, "What do you want for your life after the military?" If you don't set your intention to have it all (job, lifestyle, purpose, and joy), you never will. It doesn't happen by accident. It starts with your vision for what you want in life after the military. If you don't believe in yourself to lead, inspire, and achieve, then how can you expect anyone else to believe in you? Yes, it can be frightening, but you can do this. You've faced fear and uncertainty before, and you persevered. You succeeded. You can be the hero of your own story. Raise the bar and step forward into the life you want to live.