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Published Airpower Journal -
Maj Gen Dale O. Smith, USAF, Retired
GENERALLY people feel that if they do a good job, promotion will be inevitable. Wrong. Most people do well in their work but never move out of their rut. They often see promotions go to colleagues who don't do as well as they. Why? What's the secret?
Well, to begin with, doing a good job is a valuable prerequisite to promotion, but it is only one of many prerequisites. Of course, if you can brighten your corner with an outstanding piece of work or some new and productive ideas, doing a good job will be prominent among the prerequisites and draw attention to you.
So, the first thing you must do is to like your wor and approach it with enthusiasm. This may take some doing if, by chance, you have no enthusiasm for this type of work in the first place. But even a garbageman can find some positive values in what he is doing. If he dwells on the pluses and attempts to enhance them, he can find ways to improve his job, give better service, and develop pride and enthusiasm in his work.
Remember to keep a positive, can-do attitude. No one likes a complainer, particularly bosses. They have enough on their minds without having to listen to gripes. However, if there is something seriously wrong that you can't correct on your own, be sure to let your boss know-but don't complain.
When I was a scrub football player practicing blocks, a line coach overheard me say in frustration, "I just can't do that." Then I saw him looking at me with disapproval. I was never promoted. I should have said, "I'm going to learn how to do that yet."
In the subsequent half century, I have learned much about promotion and, except for a number of mistakes and some acts of God, might have made it to higher rank. I learned about promotion through personal experience, observation, and service on a number of promotion boards.
Almost all officers believe they could have become the chief of staff had it not been for some unfortunate event in their careers. An unflattering effectiveness report made out by commanders who didn't appreciate the officers' sterling worth is the usual cause. But many more unfortunate events block their paths to the chief's office. A friend who was definitely brigadier material hit the skids when his wife fell in love with a foreign national behind the iron curtain and tried to smuggle her lover into Austria in the trunk of a car. In Baguio, the Philippines, a brigadier general's wife had a bidet installed in the guesthouse, and an unsympathetic reporter widely publicized it. The general, despite showing promise for advancement, soon retired.
You may wonder why I didn't become chief. No? Well, even if you don't, I'll tell you. I was doing pretty well as commander of the 313th Air Division on Okinawa until an anti-American reporter from Australia visited. He had sullied my predecessor's reputation by writing that his golf course took arable land from poor Okinawans while in fact the golf course had been carved out of the boondocks and provided employment for many of the locals. This unscrupulous correspondent found another target in my Airman's Club on Kadena Air Base.
Virginia and I had arrived on Okinawa just before New Year's Day of 1958, and on New Year's Eve we visited the six clubs of the division. Everyone was having a grand time except the airmen. There were only a couple of dozen of them in the Kadena Airman's Club, a fine facility built and maintained with airmen's dues of one dollar a month. They were glumly drinking 3.2 beer. Where were the 3,000 other airmen? They were in the neighboring gin mills and cathouses off base.
The next day I revised the regulations that governed conduct of the airmen's clubs. If the airmen were old enough to fight for their country, they were old enough to have an open bar with good booze instead of the rotgut they were drinking in the village. Moreover, they could have money-making slot machines like the officers and noncommissioned officers had in their clubs. And instead of the girls of questionable character and health they might pick up in town, we would invite young Okinawan ladies from good families to the club, calling for them and delivering them home at midnight.
That did it. The club was packed every night and made more money than it could spend. It featured dance music from a 10-piece orchestra and one-dollar steak dinners nightly, together with frequent floor shows. The club even bought a Lincoln Continental to raffle off weekly. The lucky winner could have the Lincoln for a week with a liveried chauffeur and 50 dollars spending money. The airmen were having a ball.
Well, you can imagine what that antagonistic Australian reporter made of this! When he was escorted through the club by a less-than-sympathetic local newspaperman (they did an end run on my very capable public relations officer), they couldn't get into the "Key Club," which had been reserved for airman's wives. The reporter immediately assumed that something evil was going on behind that door.
The Australian was a stringer for Time, and his scurrilous article in its entirety was published in that magazine, even though no one checked the story's authenticity. A national "scandal" resulted. The innuendos painted the Kadena Airman's Club as a den of iniquity-an Air Force-sponsored cathouse.
This is not the way to get promoted. As Henry ("Light-Horse Harry") Lee warned his son Robert E., "Avoid the appearance of evil!" You can get into trouble that will dog you the rest of your service if you stick your neck out too far, as I did. Anyway, it's my good excuse for not getting a third star.
That's how to avoid promotion. Now, what can you do to get promoted?
First of all, other people must consider you in a positive and favorable light. The drudge who does a good job will not have this aura. But the person who has an optimistic outlook, pays attention to others. and passes the time of day with them in a cheerful and thoughtful way will develop a nice-guy" aura. A good reputation among your contemporaries as well as your juniors and seniors is a sound stepping-stone to promotion.
To achieve this aura and draw attention to yourself, you must follow a few rules. The first, is to look for opportunities to compliment. In almost any social interchange, it's possible to find something that warrant a sincere compliment. The stylized exchanges of everyday life are loaded with compliments: "I'm glad to have met you." "It was nice talking with you." "It was nice talking with you too." "The pleasure is all mine." You can dream up some phrases of your own.
Once, at a nightclub, Pete Croker and I invited a show girl to sit with us. We played a game to see which one of us could pay her more compliments. Before the evening was out, she was walking on air, as proud and happy as a debutante. Perhaps we overdid it, but it makes the point.
Introducing someone is an ideal situation for giving compliments, because they are indirect: "Joe, I'd like you to meet my boss, Colonel Jones, the hottest pilot on the base. Colonel, this is Lt Joe Blow, one of the best backseaters I've ever known."
It's a compliment to use "sir" and "ma'am" because they show deference and respect and are pleasing to hear from time to time. By all means, show deference and respect to your bosses and superiors. Your boss should be the first to be notified of any news and the first to be invited to any function you plan. Don't forget that the boss's spouse deserves equal, if not more, respect. It's a compliment to recognize their seniority at all times. This can be done with good manners and need not be construed as kissing ass.
My daughter-in-law told me that wives' clubs are now egalitarian--no special deference is shown to wives of senior officers. I hope she comes to realize that this practice cannot and should not be followed. In all human interchange, those who fail to show deference to age, experience, seniority, and, yes, wealth are doomed to suffer from their rudeness. Just remember that many people have worked hard and sacrificed much to reach their station in life. They deserve your admiration. Don't strip them of their rank with your attitude. It goes without saying that these people hold the power, but, beyond that, showing that you respect them for their achievement is fundamental courtesy.
The second rule is to show gratitude. When you are promoted, give the credit to others, and thank them for their help. Never overlook a kindness done you. Always show your gratitude by word or deed. Because many people help you to get ahead, you should always recognize their help and thank them. You don't have to be accurate. They may not even realize they have helped you or done you a service. As with compliments, look for opportunities to show gratitude.
Yes, to be promoted you have to do more than a good job. You have to be recognized favorably, and the more favorably you're regarded, the more likely your promotion. Practicing words and phrases that pursue this goal is a lifetime job. But when you learn them well enough to use them habitually and gracefully, they are sure winners. And another thing, look for recreational opportunities with your bosses. That's one reason golf is so important. Such informal contact will allow you to compliment and show gratitude. Obviously, it must be sincere, but that's part of the art. And you don't have to wait until business opportunities arrive. You can practice this art at home with equal success. In fact, you must practice it incessantly so that it becomes habitual and automatic. Terms of endearment, for example, are compliments. Try them on your spouse or friend, and see what happens. A good relationship on the home front is the foundation for success in the professional world. Accentuating the positive, controllable aspects of your life may help you weather the negative, uncontrollable events that inevitably plague us all.
Maj Gen Dale O. Smith USAF, Retired (USMA; MA and EdD, Stanford University), was last assigned as a member of the Joint Strategic Survey Council, Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was special assistant for arms control to the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1961 until 1964. General Smith retired in 1964 and has since devoted his time to writing and consultant work. He is the author of US Military Doctrine (1955), The Eagle's Talons (1966), Cradle of Valor (1988), and coauthor with Gen Curtis LeMay of America Is in Danger (1968). His articles have been published in Air Force, The Retired Officer, and the Aerospace Historian. General Smith is a graduate of Air War College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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