[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:
- The most important factor that must be addressed before all others or has the most far-reaching effects.
- 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.