Luck be a Lady – The Military Leader

They call you lady luck,
But there is room for doubt,
At times you have a very un-lady-like way
Of running out.

– Frank Sinatra in “Luck be a Lady”

In his recent post on the influence of luck on a career, Army officer and editor of The Military Leader Drew Steadman offers a somewhat light-hearted perspective on chance and success. Why are some people so lucky while others seem to slog along professionally? Where do you draw the line between luck and talent? What are the limits to luck in a successful career? How do you create your own luck?

Luck can be a fickle creature. As Frank Sinatra sang in “Luck be a Lady,” it has a tendency to run out when you least expect it. Depend on luck too much, and you’ll find yourself on the hard-luck side of the professional craps table, staring down dice that never seem to roll your way. On the other hand, carefully cultivated luck can do much to keep your career on a winning trajectory.

Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, 1865. Photo on Wikipedia.

Luck and Leadership

Luck is a two-sided coin. On one side is pure chance, where the outcome is as random as it is unpredictable. Statistics will tell you that the coin will only flip your way half of the time. On the other side is talent, hard work, preparation, values, and — possibly the most important factor of all — leadership. Taken together, they will add weight and cause the coin to flip your way more often than not. This is how you create your own luck. It doesn’t eliminate the role of chance, but it will limit the influence of chance on the outcome.

As a young lieutenant, chance favored me with a terrific team of noncommissioned officers and a platoon sergeant who shared a wealth of experience and knowledge. Together, we created an environment of luck: we pushed ourselves harder, set higher standards, and outperformed every other platoon in the battalion. We maintained our equipment fastidiously, sustained perfect property accountability, and trained relentlessly. We kept a steady stream of personnel in schools, incentivized work performance, and promoted and rewarded people appropriately. We became the example of what “right” looked like across the brigade. That’s not to say that chance didn’t go against us from time-to-time. But with so much going right for us, the occasional bad flip of the coin had little impact on our overall success.

“The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
– Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak

Over the course of my career, I applied the same formula again and again. I didn’t always get the assignment I wanted, but I made the most of wherever the Army sent me. There were times when the people around me weren’t the most talented, but through hard work, determination, and committed leadership we built high-performing teams that “punched above their weight class.”

Over the years, I worked for the occasional textbook toxic leader, had raters and senior raters who didn’t know the “secret language of the Officer Evaluation Report,” and even managed to piss off Human Resources Command a time or two. But, through it all, I knew that as long as I stuck to formula — talent, hard work, preparation, values, and leadership — life and career would find a balance and things would work themselves out. Luck would eventually fall my way.

For most of your career, luck begins and ends with teamwork. Through teamwork, you amplify and multiply your luck. As Drew noted in his earlier post, pivot the spotlight down and there is no limit to the luck you can generate. My first platoon sergeant was fond of saying “Take care of them, they’ll take care of you.” That’s a lesson in luck and leadership many fail to learn. It’s amazing how often the coin flip will fall your way with a contingent of troops watching your back.

But the time eventually comes when everything is on your shoulders, when any luck that falls your way has to come from you and you alone. When that day arrives — as it inevitably will — it’s helpful to keep a reminder close at hand.

“Be humble, be hungry, and always be the hardest worker in the room.”
— Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

This is a guest post by Steve Leonard of DoctrineMan!! If you’re looking for reality with just the right amount of snark, start there. Steve is also a founding member of the Military Writers Guild.

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