Where is Your “Last Rung on the Ladder?”​

When I was a young Major at Command and General Staff College years ago, I attended – with hundreds of other aspiring warriors – the annual Spring visit and presentation by the Chief of Staff of the Army. After his pitch, a student asked, “Sir, what does it take to succeed in today’s Army?”

After pondering a moment, the Chief said “You probably think I’ve been successful; I’m the Chief of Staff of the Army and a 4-star General.”

We all chuckled and thought “duh!”

He went on to say he knew contemporaries who – if in his shoes — would NOT be satisfied if they retired from that position. 

(We were all a bit perplexed at that point)

You see… the very top rung on the military ladder is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Retiring as a Service Chief would mean that… while there is still another rung… it may be just out of reach.

A career in the military – as with other pursuits — is like climbing a ladder. At the beginning, you stand at the bottom and grab the first rung. Not too difficult. 

As you gaze up, the ladder seems long and high but as you grasp each rung, you find them further and further apart. The air is thinner as you climb, you tire, and at some point, you may have to take real risks and jump to reach the next rung.

The Chief told us that day to aspire for great things but be realistic about where our last rung lies on the ladder. Set goals, work hard, then be satisfied when we get there. Everything after that is gravy.

If you are always grabbing for the next rung – you will eventually be disappointed when you find it out of reach. 

I’ve spoken to a few transitioning Colonels and Navy Captains over the years who left their 30-year career bitter thinking they should have been a General or Admiral instead of others.

I tell them another great adventure awaits them in the civilian world and to look forward, not back. All of us have a “Last rung on the ladder.” Most of us reach it somewhere in the middle. Once there, be satisfied… be proud of what you have accomplished…

… then find another ladder.

Retired Major General Craig B. Whelden

Major General Craig Whelden,
U.S. Army (Retired)

Served 30 years in the Army followed by another nine as a member of the Senior Executive Service for the Marine Corps.

He is a global Fortune 500 speaker and the author of a three-time award-winning, #1 international best-selling book, LEADERSHIP: The Art of Inspiring People to Be Their Best.  He now resides in Bluffton, South Carolina.