Why Some Leaders Don’t Get Promoted

[May 21, 2020]  Long ago, I lost count of the number of mid and senior grade Army officers and Sergeants that I counseled because they did not get promoted as expected.  The reasons can be complicated but the more common reasons I will list here.  Yet, while there are differences across organizations, most are the same.

We all want to advance ourselves: in our jobs, in church, with the sports team we play on, and even at home.  Humans, by our very nature, are trying to get from Point A (where we are today) to Point B (some undefined time in the future that is better).  We don’t always succeed, but each of us strives to improve our lives, a worthy cause without end.

The “culture” of the organization is what matters most and aligning oneself in that culture is neither an easy task nor is it necessarily rewarding.  Anyone who does not believe in and support the organizational norms, values, and ways of getting the job done will run into unending obstacles to their advancement.

“The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.” – John C. Maxwell

Here are several reasons why leaders don’t get promoted:

  1. They lack the required technical or technical skills necessary to do the job. To do this, however, a leader must clearly and regularly demonstrate they have the talent to do the job they desire.
  2. They have not successfully held the required jobs. This is often informal, but senior leaders expect to see a progression in positions from simple to more complex and success in each.
  3. They lack motivation and a positive attitude. Too many leaders want a promotion because they believe they deserve it by merely being there.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Every day is an audition for their next promotion.
  4. A lack of professionalism. Over time, it is expected that leaders adopt more significant levels of responsibility, be circumspect, develop a good sense of judgment, and complete difficult tasks with little guidance.
  5. They don’t take ownership. They lack initiative.  It’s too easy to walk by a problem, complain about it, or ignore a challenge.  Taking ownership means going out of a leader’s way to fix a problem even if the boss didn’t tell you to do it.
  6. Thinking like a manager and not as a leader. Like the Maxwell quote above, the boss says, “go” – the leader says, “let’s go.”  Managers are interested in things, administrative issues, and making sure everything is in order.  Leaders are about people’s care and mission accomplishment.
  7. You know somebody (important or with ‘connections). Knowing someone special may give a leader a critical start, but without the proven ability to complete tasks, it will provide little help and will often harm their chances for promotion.
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.

29 thoughts on “Why Some Leaders Don’t Get Promoted

  1. Paul Oliver

    Excellent summary, esp point 5!
    Its spot on!

  2. Army Captain

    This article is spot-on and I enjoyed reading the list of reasons so many leaders don’t get promoted. I will emphasize that understanding the organizational culture is imperative to getting promoted. If your core values don’t fit that of the org, then it is best that you get out of there, else you will remain stagnant.

  3. Big Al

    Useful, enjoyable, and educational. Leaders – junior leaders in particular – pay attention to this. Lessons are hard to learn and use. These are not that hard but the difference they make is staggering.

    1. Stacey Borden

      Hi “Big Al”, I’m new here and would like to contribute. This article got my attention. I too believe these are lessons for more junior, less experienced leaders. I agree that these lessons are not that hard, what may appear so on the surface, but execution of them might just be a little difficult without someone mentoring you.

  4. lydia truman

    Keep up these types of articles, Gen. Satterfield. I’m learning more and more on what to do and what not to do as a leader. Most people think being a leader means you have to be willing to give orders. But it is more than that. It means, among many things, to take care of your people and yourself and family/community. That is a level of responsibility too many folks are not willing to bear.

    1. José Luis Rodriguez

      Yes, to illustrate, I once knew a lady who was always asked to get promoted to team leader in our business. When she did and realized the amount of work and responsibility, she asked to be demoted so she wouldn’t have to work so hard. She learned the hard way about leadership.

      1. Jerome Smith

        Yes, Jose, loved your story. I have seen this happen but the person refused to back down and couldn’t handle the leadership role. They were eventually fired for not doing their job but also for being unwilling to take a demotion back to where they were beforehand. This is another view of a narcisstic personality that is bad for everyone.

        1. Greg Heyman

          Sadly, I’ve seen this too and way too often.

  5. Len Jakosky

    I printed this list and posted it on the refrig in my house. It remains me of what not to do as a leader.

  6. Max Foster

    My favorite one is #6, think like a manager not as a leader. Yes, that will get you stuck in your position. All leaders love those who can manipulate numbers and do loggie stuff … so they like to keep them doing it. Very reliable folks those data crunchers. They don’t get promoted except to earn more money, not as a leader.

    1. Kenny Foster

      Great insight, Max. I agree. And those data-types like being where they are because it’s comfortable for them. Being a leader is not comfortable.

  7. Ronny Fisher

    Another spot-on article to greet me as I wake up early this morning. Today, I’ll be seeing some of my co-workers for the first time in a few months. I look forward to it. But I will also have something worthy to discuss at the cooler.

  8. Nick Lighthouse

    Thoughtful, well-articulate blog post. Thanks, Gen. Satterfield for your insight into something that all junior leaders have a great interest. Promotion is seen as a confirmation that they are doing a good job plus a good pat on the back always makes us happy.

    1. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      Yeah, and when we don’t get promoted it says something about us too. No one wants to hear that they are somehow inadequate or underperforming. In our own minds we are the greatest thing since sliced bread. At least that is what everyone told us.

      1. Jonnie the Bart

        But but but, we are from the snowflake generation !!! LOL

  9. Willie Shrumburger

    Tell the truth, adopt responsibility, care for yourself-family-community, and be brave. These are the things that help you succeed. I would like for Gen. Satterfield to tie these into his article in some way.

  10. Yusaf from Texas

    Once again, Gen. Satterfield has given us something to think about while we are out and about doing our “thing” as leaders. Much appreciated. On another note, it looks like we are coming out of the pandemic crisis. Now is the time that leadership matters most. The real judgment of great leadership is results, not platitudes nor pretty words. Results matter.

    1. Eva Easterbrook

      Yes, Yusaf, results matter but the biased media (heavily biased, IMO) plays up those people they believe are “good” and try to destroy those they think are “bad.” This moral superiority complex will result in a greater divided nation, less saving of lives, and a whole host of unforseen problems.

    2. Randy Goodman

      Well said. Thanks Yusaf and Eva. You guys are the main reason I read the forums. I actually learned something today.

  11. Army Captain

    Very well thought-out list of reasons leaders don’t get promoted. I can add a few others:
    1. they do something illegal, immoral, or unethical
    2. they don’t take care of their employees
    3. they are narcissistic
    4. they don’t spend the time resources to learn and do more…

    1. Greg Heyman

      Nice addition. I would add that maybe they are the relative of someone important and that is why they were originally hired. But in a merit-based system, eventually that doesn’t work out too well.

    2. Janna Faulkner

      Overall, great article and appreciate the additions, Army Captain. Good to see you back on Gen. Satterfield’s website. Haven’t hear from you in a while. Again, thanks for your service and I mean it.

      1. Danny Burkholder

        Hi Janna, you took my words right out of my mouth. Yes, great article and good additions by Army Captain. I will emphasize that not learning and fitting the subculture of the organization is one of the biggest reasons for not getting promoted, running into roadblocks, and having a bad time of it.

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