Earn Your Spurs

By | October 2, 2018

[October 2, 2018]  In most armies worldwide there’s a classic story of a Second Lieutenant who was not trusted by his platoon because he was so “green” (inexperienced and untested).  Just like this lieutenant, until you earn your spurs in any vocation you will find the road to leadership challenging and frustrating.

Earn your spurs is, of course, an idiom where the original meaning may have been literal but today it is symbolic and refers to proving your worth as a member of some group or organization.  At one time or another, we’ve all had to do this.  In some circumstances doing so can be both difficult and time consuming.1,2

I had a Civil Engineer professor at Texas Tech University who was on the warpath about this very issue.  He believed that there was no reason for recent graduating students to be treated with less respect and confidence typically given to more experienced and older engineers already in the workplace.  He never got anywhere with his argument despite his prominence in the field of engineering.

It can be hard to modify human behavior and this is one of those behaviors that seems to resist change more than most.  The challenge for new leaders is to recognize that they will be put into this position and they should be prepared for earning their spurs.  Furthermore, preventing unwarranted, hazing or similar problems in the workplace is another leader responsibility related to earning your spurs.

In the U.S. military, it is common to move from one unit to another about every three years.  During those transitions, troops will once again go through a variation on this principle.  How one handle’s themselves will say much about their character and how they will be accepted into that organization.  Complaining about its unfairness or using it to justify failure at some point later in time, shows that a leader lacks what it really takes to lead.

So, go out and earn your spurs.  Know that it is a part of life and that leaders will be judged based on their actions and words during the process.  Best of luck during those times and remember to smile and keep a good attitude always.


  1. For example, to be fully accepted as a professional, one usually has to earn a college degree in a specific technical field and then work in that profession for several years. Earning certifications and professional qualifications beyond a degree and experience is also part of the process.
  2. American cowboys claim first use of the idiom but I doubt that is true.
Please follow and like us:
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

23 thoughts on “Earn Your Spurs

  1. The Kid 1945

    Another truly good article to start my morning. Thanks, Gen. Satterfield for a topic most of us don’t even think about but is more important than most would judge it to be. When I read your blog this morning, I thought to myself, wow, that happened to me and I just had angst over it but never thought of it in context.

  2. Lynn Pitts

    Not many leaders understand this phenomenon and probably would want to change it if they could. But it will not change. People are simply human and until you prove yourself and demonstrate loyalty and the ability to do your job, they will not trust you.

  3. Greg Heyman

    Leaders need to be more than aware of this phenomenon, they also can use it to their advantage. The example of army units that symbolize the transition by a ceremony is not something to be taken lightly but used as a way to formalize the process and accept more members into the group. Others use other techniques but this is the best one I’ve ever witnessed.

  4. Wilson Cox

    Long ago I too earned my spurs – so to speak – while being selected as the new team leader for my company. We manufactured car parts and it was crucial that our product meet certain high standards. I was not immediately accepted into the group because I was also new to the company. It took a few months before my teammates would accept me as their true team leader despite it being official from day one. This goes to show that there is an informal element to all human interactions and leaders should be aware of it.

    1. Bryan Lee

      Loved your story. Thanks Wilson. This is an example I think we’ve all seen before.

    1. Eddie Ray Anderson,

      I enjoyed reading through this Facebook page. Well done.

  5. Eric Coda

    Good article today on a subject that I never even gave much thought to. I especially like you alluding to hazing which has a similar process but is rightly frowned upon.

  6. Maureen S. Sullivan

    Army Captian and Andrew, these are great stories. I know that you also mean you earned the trust and confidence of your soldiers at the same time. Well done!

    1. Andrew Dooley

      Yes, Maureen, that is exactly right. It was both literal and figuratively. Too bad more organizations don’t make it so obvious.

  7. Andrew Dooley

    Too bad you cannot have photos in the comments section. I “earned” my spurs as a 10 year old little boy who learned to ride horses at my parent’s horse farm in Maine. This was long ago but I still have those spurs and will treasure them forever.

  8. Army Captain

    I earned my spurs — literally — as a soldier in the 1st Cavalry Division. We had to undergo a number of “tests” that determined if we were tough enough physically and mentally. These were Silver and we were told the only way to get the Gold spurs was to also be in combat with the 1st Cav.

    1. Jerome Smith

      Congratulations Army Captain. Well done! Good to read about your story.

    2. Tomas C. Clooney

      Thanks for sharing your inspiring story of military life and rewards for doing a good job.

Comments are closed.