Career Casualties - The Warrior's Journey®

Career Casualties

Author: Rex Williams, USAF (Ret.)

Presenting the Colors. Photo by US Air Force is licensed under CC By 2.0

We’ve all seen them.

Almost beyond a doubt, one or more of us reading this is one themselves.


They take many different forms. The form depends on what branch of service they’re in, whether they’re officer or enlisted, and their career field. Careerist behavior looks different depending on personality, integrity, work ethic and talents. But they all have this in common: they are in it for themselves.

The Air Force has three core values:

Integrity First; Service Before Self; and Excellence in All We Do.

Careerists don’t put service before self, but rather, self before service—self before others, self before anything. They may sacrifice their integrity in one or more ways, on the altar of rank, position, power or prestige. These ways may include ingratiating oneself with higher-ups, cheating on promotion exams or in Professional Military Education, taking credit for others’ work, or undermining co-workers with your boss and peers. And, of course, the appearance of excellence—rather than actual excellence—will be perfectly acceptable. Well, as long as it’s enough to get them ahead of their peers.

I’d like to be able to claim that there’s no careerism in the AF Chaplain Corps, but for better or for worse, chaplains are people too. When I was a Captain, one of my peers had some way of getting notified whenever a general officer was flying into the base—even if just passing through. This chaplain would drop whatever he was doing to go to Base Ops to try to get some “face time,” with generals he’d never even met. Thankfully, he was never promoted—nor should he have been.

They may sacrifice their integrity in one or more ways, on the altar of rank, position, power or prestige.

There is often a thin line between careerism and professionalism—a desire to advance, and a desire to succeed. Usually, our motivation for doing something is the key. Is it “careerist” to pin the insignia of the next rank to the wall in your work-space? Or merely a healthy reminder of just one of the many goals you have for your work? Is it “careerist” to take leave in order to study for an upcoming promotion exam? Or merely a wise, professional use of your time? There are no hard and fast answers to these questions, and often, the fact that we are concerned enough to ask them is evidence that we haven’t gone too far down that road. On the other hand, if these questions could be legitimately asked in many different areas of your military career, perhaps that should give you cause for concern.

A large part of whether you are too focused on your career advancement as opposed to having a “successful” career is to take a long, hard look at yourself. Ask yourself a few questions and then be honest in your answers.

First Question

The first question is, Why am I serving in the military in the first place? There is almost never a single answer—and certainly,  no one “right” answer to this question, but if your answer speaks in terms of rank, position, medals, power, prestige, and the like most would agree these are “careerist” motivations. Certainly, very few of us are in the military for the money! Some other motivations might include a desire to get away from your home or hometown, a desire to travel, learn a marketable skill, get educational benefits, and other self-oriented—though not selfish—motivations. And then, such reasons as a desire to serve others, defend your country, or to serve God in a particular way to which you feel called, could certainly not be considered careerist.

Second Question

The second question, both generally and in regard to specific actions you have taken is, What was my motivation in doing that? Did you tell your boss that your co-worker was late again this morning because tardiness undermines performance and morale? Or was it to undermine that co-worker’s standing in the eyes of the boss? Did you take on a project such as a workplace Christmas party because you truly wanted to help? Or because of the “brownie points” it would earn?

There are three primary casualties as a result of a careerist approach to your service: Your work, your family, and your walk with God. And remember, in the case of the last two, your relationships with your family and your God exist apart from the workplace and will–or should–continue long after your military career has come to an end.

The Bible has many things to say about careerism and careerists, though those words don’t occur in the Bible.

Your work—your job performance—becomes a casualty of your career when you subordinate integrity, service and excellence to the demands of your advancement—cut corners, lie, undermine working relationships and morale, all in order to “get ahead.” It suffers when you take on projects and opportunities not because you care about the outcome, but because you care about that next grade or an end-of-tour medal.

There is often a thin line between careerism and professionalism—a desire to advance, and a desire to succeed.

Your relationship with your family suffers when you volunteer for remote assignments and deployments not because of a desire to serve, but in order to set yourself apart from the competition. It suffers when you spend long hours at work for the same reason, or take on time-consuming projects or additional duties for that same reason. Your spouse and children will be sympathetic and understanding if these things arise in the normal course of your job and career; far less so if they know you are willing to sacrifice your relationship with them for the sake of your advancement.

Your relationship with the living God suffers when you act immorally in order to get ahead, or when you take time away from church attendance, prayer, and Scripture study in order to have more time for work. Your faith suffers when you are simply too tired after having met the demands of work, to do the things that faith requires.

The Bible has many things to say about careerism and careerists, though those words don’t occur in the Bible. Here is a useful one: “No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt themselves. It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.” (Ps. 75:6–7, NIV).

The world is not a perfect place, and certainly, our military promotion and recognition systems are not perfect. We’ve all seen people who we thought were deserving, not get the medal, or assignment, or promotion they appeared to have earned. And we’ve all seen careerists (and others) get the same things, which as far as we can tell, they didn’t deserve. And, praise the Lord, you may know of one or more people who were passed over multiple times for promotion, and just when everyone who knows how these things work had concluded that it simply wasn’t going to happen—they came out on the promotion list!

Seeing things only from our own perspective can keep us from having the Lord’s perspective.

Knowing ourselves as well as we think we do, it’s hard to believe that someone so deserving of recognition and advancement might not get what we feel we have rightfully earned. Perhaps the best attitude to take towards your career is one that serves almost all of us best at all times, not just in regard to promotion: “Not as I will but as You will” (Matt 26:39, NIV).  This attitude is one that says, “I don’t want to be promoted beyond what my gifts and abilities deserve, nor to be promoted out of the Lord’s will for my life.” I’ve tried to have the attitude, “If the Lord doesn’t want me to make the next rank, then I don’t want to make it either.” Sometimes, it’s been a lot easier to say that than to sincerely mean it!

The world is not a perfect place, and certainly our military promotion and recognition systems are not perfect.

Perhaps you have been the victim of a careerist’s gamesmanship—or perhaps you yourself are part of the problem. Either way, please take a few moments to ask the Lord to show you whether your motivations and priorities are in accordance with His “good, and pleasing, and perfect will” for your life—or whether you are in danger of taking some career casualties.

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