Updated: Feb 18, 2019
As you might remember from my article, Competence Beats Confidence, I attended a private military college during my undergraduate years. Stylish camouflage daywear, lots of yelling, brutal soul-crushing discipline… good times.
I learned a lot during those years. However, the things that really stuck had nothing to do with military science, history, or literature.
In an environment that intense, you learn a lot about your real potential and strengths. You also learn a great deal about your weaknesses.
During my days as a cadet, attrition was not something that the institution avoided. Unlike most higher education institutions, a certain amount of attrition was a goal.
The underlying assumption was that every entering freshman class contained a certain percentage of recruits who would fold, quit, or otherwise implode under the mental and emotional demands that life at the institution required.
This was especially true during the induction phase, but there was also attrition in later years when cadets were expected to take on active leadership roles managing their classmates and training new recruits.
Adding to the stress was the fact that nearly half of the cadets were on ROTC scholarships that often required a massive and challenging course-load. A-level grades were expected. A certain number of B-level grades were tolerated. Anything lower and you might gone.
At best, the remainder of the induction and on-going training was designed to instill the strength of character that would forge resilient soldiers and civilian leaders. That was certainly true.
Of course, the shadier side of cadet life also included its fair share of mind-games, petty tyrants, and other sundry and creative forms of psychological and physical infliction of pain. As I said… good times.
This experience was a master-class in what happens when people come face-to-face with their perceived limits and character flaws. Most find courage and resources they didn’t know they had. They drive-on and improve. Other cadets crumbled; some fast, some slow, and some completely out of the blue.
There were three main reasons that cadets quit. Each contains a lesson for growing leaders under stress in any environment.
Unrealistic Expectations. Many cadets spent their high school years dreaming and working toward the goal of attending this school. It was the culmination of years of focused effort. However, once there in person the high-definition reality often didn’t match their romantic expectations. The institution they had in their head didn’t exist in the real world. Some cadets never got over this and spent their entire time on campus being disappointed that reality didn’t match their unrealistic expectations.
This same dynamic happens in professional life. All organizations, even the most admirable ones, are populated by people with flaws. Even organizations that earnestly strive to live out their mission statements, often fall short in obvious ways. Mentors and role models who are incredible at their craft, might be carry deep private flaws that you don’t see until you are up close and personal. Such is life.
Leaders must help themselves and others navigate these dichotomies and balance the need to be aspirational, while being grounded in the reality of human life. Strong leaders motivate their team to push closer to the ideal. They don’t constantly dwell on how everyone falls short.
Lack of humility. A common saying among cadets was that some people couldn’t handle going from high school hero to cadet zero. Ironically those who often had the most difficulty, particularly with the induction phase, were those who were the biggest “heroes” back home. They graduated high school as the captain of everything, dated all the right people, and were universally looked-up to and admired.
Then they suddenly found themselves at the bottom of a whole new pyramid, crawling through mud with people they didn’t see as their equals, and a drill sergeant screaming obscenities in their face. Some just couldn’t take it.
They couldn’t give up the social status they enjoyed in their high school days. They weren’t willing admit they didn’t know everything. They refused to become a student again, and thus, they couldn’t be taught. Many young people who looked like the epitome of the big tough future soldier were the first to quit; not because they lacked physical or intellectual ability, but simply because they lacked humility.
Growth as a leader requires that you actively seek opportunities to perform at or beyond the edge of your competencies.
If find yourself thinking that you are the smartest person in the room all the time, you are either egotistically delusional or you might need to find some new rooms.
You know you are in the right room when you are surrounded by people you admire and want to emulate; when you look around and wonder if you’ll be able to keep up with such impressive and hard-driving professionals.
High performing leaders don’t surround themselves with acolytes who tell them how great they are all day. Instead, they purposely find new people, teams, and organizations that will push them beyond their prior limits. Great leaders are willing to become students again, and again, and again.
Fear of exposure. This reason to quit is the opposite of the previous one. The high school hero quit due to a lack of humility, but this person quit because they just never felt worthy. The reasons and stories varied greatly, but this cadet carried a deep and ever-present fear that everyone would somehow find out that they really didn’t belong there.
Maybe they were following in someone else’s gigantic footsteps. The father of one of my friends was a decorated war hero. His dad was so famous that he was the real-life model for a well-known movie character and even a later cartoon action figure. At least that’s what his sons were told and believed. Imagine growing up in that kind of shadow…
Others carried deeper and less obvious insecurities. Maybe they felt weak and thought this experience would toughen them up. Sometimes that happened. Intense formation can turn you into a tougher version of yourself, but it won’t make you an entirely different person. Those who sadly wanted to be someone else often didn’t make it.
If you are pushing yourself in professional life, it is entirely normal and healthy to question whether you have what it takes. In fact, if you’re not asking that question regularly you might need to set some higher goals for yourself. As I said above, you might need to find a new room.
All leaders have doubt. Some are haunted by it and quit. Others recognize the doubt, learn from it, and choose to go forward anyway. If you want to be safe, stay put. If you want to grow, self-doubt is part of the journey. You’re only an imposter if you refuse to grow into the role you have chosen.
Whether you are building a company, transitioning to a new role, or leading a team through a tough time, one of these reasons to quit is sure to tempt you at some point. Don’t quit; at least not for any of the reasons above. All of those great leaders you look up to? They face these things too.
It might be tough. It might really suck sometimes. However, like being a cadet, you can always take comfort in the fact that we are all crawling through the same mud together.
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