From Failure to Growth: Leadership reflections on promotion non-selection 

2023 Gen Robert E. Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest: Second Place

In December 2022, my boss notified me that I was passed for promotion to lieutenant colonel. The emotions encompassing this gut-wrenching juncture in my career embodied myriad mental emotions, including rage, betrayal, emptiness, uselessness, shame, and embarrassment; similar mental emotions when one encounters ending relationships, failing to reach the highest levels in sports, or receiving a rejection letter from college. Despite these negative sentiments, the failure of promotion selection forced me to grapple with several essential leadership reflections to focus on—internally defining success, building resiliency through adversity, service before self, and humility in all. The purpose of this piece is to shape all Marine’s mindsets when faced with adversity, to help build their mental resiliency through understanding varying perspectives, and to provide lessons learned—not in the mechanical process after non-selection to the next rank but lessons that one can apply as a humble professional seeking the next opportunity within the Marine Corps and beyond.


Leadership Reflection # 1: What does success look like for you?
Success comes in many shapes and sizes—promotion to the next rank may not characterize the embodiment of success. My pass for promotion compelled me to truly reflect on my definition of success. While in college and throughout my almost seventeen years in service, I was surrounded by senior leaders describing the path to the next rank or challenging experiences that would lead to promotion. The consistent focus on routes to promotion was instilled into my mindset that promotion defined success. Moreover, various engagements with senior officers invoked an idol persona, further describing success aligned to a specific rank. This is not only true of my experience but also part of our institutional fabric; for example, key billet in grade leads to success, or achieving critical milestones in a MOS roadmap will define success. Through deliberate thought, one must find what success looks like while expanding the aperture to consider events outside of the professional lens, such as becoming a parent or experiencing personally challenging events like running a half marathon. Only you define what success looks like for you—no one else.


Leadership Reflection # 2: A diligent work ethic will build mental resiliency.
My parents taught me to work through challenges and complex problems diligently, but I failed to see that the industrious work ethic they instilled in me would prepare me for mental adversity in the future. I was raised to have a robust and committed work ethic in all aspects of life—including academics, physical fitness, and in the professional workforce—which resulted in overcoming various challenges. Furthermore, the time and commitment devoted to those challenges led me to focus on just the results. I focused my diligent work ethic on the outcome, not the intangible mental development I would gain through that hard work. With the unwelcoming promotion results, my mental resiliency was tested, and my work ethic was triggered to focus on the next promotion board. Moreover, it highlighted the symbiotic relationship between work ethic and mindset hardening or resiliency. I will continue meticulously and thoroughly working through complex problems, regardless of circumstances or results. Still, I will further reflect on how my mindset has matured in preparation for future endeavors I may face.


Leadership Reflection # 3: Your tribe members will reveal their true character during challenging encounters. Surround yourself with true teammates to keep you on course.
In professional and personal development, colleagues become friends and mentors, congratulating you on achievements and significant career milestones; however, during adversity, only those committed friends and mentors will stand out, ensuring the developmental process stays the course. When the promotion message became public, confirming the failed promotion, those dedicated friends and mentors contacted me immediately for a mental check-in and encouragement. Those same individuals followed up after the initial notification, providing invaluable guidance and direction for immediate actions in preparation for the next board. What I found unexpected and upsetting were the various individuals who became voiceless in the aftermath. No contact was made, and the check-ins stopped. The character of those “friends” and “mentors” became evident when the professional hardship emerged. I realized that I must surround myself with genuine friends and mentors who cherish and respect the relationships, and I accepted that I may have to form new connections that will endure.

As a friend or mentor, remaining engaged in a relationship must carry through the joyous moments, and those engagements must increase during the challenging ones; however, sometimes, new bonds must form when existing ones fail. Upon non-selection, I sought guidance from a humble leader with whom I had no previous relationship. Entering that professional relationship with a level of humility and vulnerability provided me with clarity and understanding of his type of leadership. This individual did not indulge my weakness but forced me to widen my aperture on life and view the problem from a different perspective. The experience was invaluable. Everyone must surround themselves with mentors to guide them on personal and professional paths. Still, more importantly, one may be required to form new relationships to ensure continued personal and professional growth in the future. I am forever grateful for the genuine leadership displayed and the incalculable guidance provided by my new mentor.


Leadership Reflection # 4: The Fourteen Leadership Traits and Humility
The fourteen Marine Corps leadership traits always influenced my actions and frame of thought as a platoon commander, company commander, and in everyday life as a Marine, father, and husband; however, one trait, not included in the fourteen, that was stressed and exercised based on the promotion failure was humility.1 Every promotion in the past was a humbling experience because I could not have made it without the commitment and hard work of the Marines I led and the colleagues around me. The fact that the previous Marine Corps boards saw the potential in me for the next rank was a reminder of the required focus and effort to lead Marines at the highest level. As I was informed of the failure of selection, my humility was challenged. It was a sign of how I miscalculated my importance: a delicate balance and harmony between humility and confidence must be reached to effectively lead and follow. Moreover, the failure reminded me that promotions do not define us, and my previous commitments to the Corps aligned with my purpose of leading Marines. Lastly, the humility within thickened, realizing that, at some point, my Marine Corps career will end while the next generation will take the Corps to the next level. Though each of the fourteen leadership traits impacted how I would tackle the next board, my humility was the trait that cauterized the most during the rebuilding journey.


Leadership Reflection # 5: We hear and see the triumphant, but the others walk amongst us.
Leaders of all ranks revere those who succeed in training, garrison, and combat operations, but often, some leaders overlook those who are not prosperous but still reside within their formations. Not everyone will become an honor graduate, but leaders must acknowledge and understand that those not at the top of their class can and will provide value to an organization—it’s service to the Corps. The pass for promotion event allowed me to meet other leaders who are still providing valuable contributions to the Corps. Some individuals did not reach the next rank or were not on the path to command but still held high visibility and critical billets in the organizations they served. Others chose to remain in the Service long after retirement eligibility, where some of their peers surpassed them in rank, but they still remained engaged. Furthermore, they served as sturdy professionals and consummate examples to emulate for others. They continue this selfless duty, knowing they are not destined for command or other higher-ranking paths. In a people organization, it becomes essential to acknowledge that both winners and losers will walk among the formations. However, it takes astute leaders to maximize the value of all members of an organization, leading them to an overall objective for the betterment of the organization.


Leadership Reflection # 6: Stay in the arena.
After tremendous self-reflection, you must choose whether to stay or leave an organization. You must decide to either stay or leave the arena.2 The personal reflection period I endured allowed me to focus on a sense of purpose, not just within the profession of arms but in life. Moreover, the reflection period concentrated on defining the arena I operated in while assessing and refining my personal and professional goals. All while confirming my purpose. Staying in the arena requires complete devotion and anticipation of future challenges that may result in failure. However, only you can decide to stay. By choosing to stay, I reaffirmed my commitment to the organization and found mental tranquility in decisions I had zero control over, like the promotion board. More importantly, I recognized that remaining in the arena would allow me to break the headwind for the next generation of Marines.

In closing, the failed results of the promotion board illuminated mental emotions and brought on a level of mental imbalance. Some feelings were tamed and predictable, but some emotions surfaced at random triggered moments. Through this struggle, I concluded that the power of failure is incredible. It was incredible because it allowed me to focus on life’s essential moments and the people throughout. The failure forced me to define success. Moreover, this failure tested my resiliency and helped me identify the source of my mental toughness—my diligent work ethic. Lastly, the failure allowed me to mature into a more humble professional, positively influencing how I lead Marines today and will lead them in the future.

I have formed other leadership reflections throughout my career, but the six ones that remain enduring are described in this piece. The reflections aim to support those encountering challenges and those who have undergone failure within the Marine Corps or other career or personal efforts. The intent was not to develop a navigation chart to beat the promotion boards but to overcome challenges and build mental toughness. Through my failure, I desire that these leadership reflections provide guidance and mentorship, empowering subordinates, peers, and seniors who wish to stay in the arena. I learned these lessons through adversity. Thankfully, in December 2023, I was notified that I was selected for promotion. I will now carry these lessons forward and focus on service to the Corps and our Nation—not on the promotion to colonel.

>LtCol Rodriguez is a Communications Officer serving at the Marine Corps Cyberspace Operations Group. He has served at all three MEFs with a combined twenty months in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM/Operation ENDURING FREEDOM as a Communications Officer and an Information Operations Planner.  


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCWP 6-11, Leading Marines, (Washington, DC: 1995).

2. Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic,” (speech, Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910).