The Long Pole in the Tent

By | June 12, 2019

[June 12, 2019] As a Buck Sergeant in the U.S. Army, I heard many military idioms and often wondered if military officers existed just to confuse sergeants. Since retiring from the army, referring to something like the long pole in the tent has become one of my favorite expressions. The problem is that it has more than one meaning and can lead to misunderstandings. My advice is not to use it as a leader.

In days past, tents used a ridge pole from end to end. Without that pole, the tent would be unusable. I knew some Korean War veterans who said their units deployed into combat and didn’t bring their tent ridge poles because they would fit in their ship space allotted. When they arrived in South Korea and discovered their tents were unusable, they burned them.

This is how some military writers explain it.1 The phrase “the long pole in the tent” can refer either to:

  1. The most important factor that must be addressed before all others or has the most far-reaching effects.
  2. Something or someone that prevents or slows progress to completing a task.

I use the phrase with BOTH meanings in mind; at the same time. The English language is difficult anyhow and caulked full of enough vagueness to frustrate any person. Leadership is hard, and one of the core reasons is that communication is unclear. In the Army, because of it, I was often given orders that lacked simple clarity.

Early in my military career, I thought that I was dumb and didn’t fully understand what my officers were telling me to do. I assumed everyone else did and so I didn’t ask any questions or request clarity. Today, we know that making assumptions means failure at some point. Never assume anything.2

My Company Commander set me straight one day; just after I’d been promoted to Buck Sergeant. He said that using phrases such as “long pole in the tent,” making assumptions, and not clearing up vague orders, meant that I was not taking care of my soldiers. I got the message quick.

I promised myself to purge this expression from my vocabulary. It’s a bad habit. If you’re a leader, it will help you fail, and that is something to avoid. So, don’t be the long pole in the tent.


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.

21 thoughts on “The Long Pole in the Tent

  1. Georgie M.

    When speaking with those around you, it is always a good idea to avoid potentially confusing terms and language styles. That is why I avoid emotionally-charged words, words with double meanings, acronyms, slang, cursing, etc. You would be surprised how easy this is to do. Also, you sound and act more professional and will be more respected in life.

    1. Bryan Lee

      Spot-on comment. Yes, it will generate more respect for you which translates into more trust. And, as we all know, trust is the basis for all successful human interaction.

      1. Tracey Brockman

        A common theme in this blog but rarely understood well in most social circles. You will, however, find the idea discussed often in successful leaders conversations.

  2. Max Foster

    The idea here from Gen. Satterfield is to avoid, when you can, any language that might be unclear. Simple. Work with others to help yourself be clear about things. Once you begin to pay closer attention to what you say (and do), you will find that cleaning up your language (and providing a clearer message) is actually fairly easy. But it requires feedback from others.

  3. The Kid 1945

    From the URBAN DICTIONARY, Long Pole in the Tent means “Someone who is delaying the project, and taking too long, causing everyone else time, money and expense.”

  4. Eric Coda

    From the website English Language Usage:
    Help! A former colleague got all of us using the expression “x is long pole in the tent” to mean:
    x is the person or issue that’s preventing forward progress on a project
    x is the person or issue that will take up the most time on a project
    Besides not being a familiar idiom for some, the expression has sexual overtones. What would be a better alternative?

    1. Yusaf from Texas

      The most blunt way of conveying the same meaning is to say “x is the biggest problem” or “x is the major issue.” But if you wanted to be less direct you could say “x is the bottleneck (or choke point)” or “x is on the critical path (or road to completion).”

      1. Tomas C. Clooney

        Good solution, Yusaf…thank you.

    2. Jonnie the Bart

      Eric, you are in the right ballpark on this one. Well done!

  5. Anita

    Some sources say this term comes from engineering or aviation. However, it the exact relationship between tents and aviation is unclear. Most sources also say that the metaphorical meaning of this idiom is related to its literal meaning.

    1. Greg Heyman

      The long pole in a tent will determine the height of the tent, just as the longest, most time consuming, part of a project will determine the length of a project. Likewise, the long pole in a tent usually is in the center, and bears most of the weight, making it the most important. Therefore, the long pole in the tent in the metaphorical sense can also be the most important. Both meanings exist, I think, although the meaning related to delays is more common.

  6. Drew Dill

    I laughed to myself when I read your article because I too was in the army and heard it often. I thought I knew what it meant, but maybe I too was confused. Ha Ha Ha 🙂

  7. Army Captain

    Do you want to be the long pole in the tent? Ask yourself if it means you are important or you are slowing things down. That is why the phrase can be misleading. I personally avoid using this common phraseology.

    1. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      I think most people do know what it means if you live in an English-speaking nation. The problem with any idiom or unusual phrase is that it doesn’t translate well into other languages. Perhaps, Gen Satterfield can write an article that deals with it this way. Thanks all for a series of great comments.

      1. Big Al

        Well said, Bill. I agree that most people are NOT confused by the phrase.

    2. JT Patterson

      Good habit # xxxxxx ( 🙂 ): Speak plainly and precisely.

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