“You Are Not Below-the-Zone”


This slice of developmental street wisdom has been circulating among Air Force officers over the past year on various websites and via email. It has become popular and resonant with many grappling to wrap their minds around the mess the service has made of mentorship and officer development. 

The piece is attributed Maj. Christopher Keown, who wrote it in late 2015 to communicate a “viewpoint based [on] years of experience and the intimate insights from successful officers in the Air Force.” I don’t know Keown or his background, and that’s not really important. What matters is his ideas, and he touches on some strong ones here. In reviewing his work, it strikes me just how little truth exists in the official version of the “officer development system” … and how much time and energy are wasted in futile attempts to bureaucratize something that can only really work if we raise strong leaders and entrust it to them as a sacred duty. The 2017 Air Force is failing in both respects because it serially puts morally irresolute politicians in command of airmen and doesn’t trust its leaders enough when they try to do what’s best for the service.

I would ordinarily present a piece like this on its own, without comment. But in this case, I expect most of the JQP audience has seen this article. I therefore interlace my comments in blue, which I hope are constructive. Important to give this article the treatment it deserves, since it continues to fill a discussion void created over the past dozen years and thus far left wide open by a CSAF we expected would lead with a stronger hand on this subject.


Every officer in the Air Force starts their career with astronomical career goals and no idea how to achieve them. If you are lucky enough to work for the right people you may be taught and let in on “the system” as it is usually referred to. Unfortunately for the majority of Air Force officers they are never let in on the do’s and don’ts of “the system” or given guidance or mentorship on whether they are in the 97 percentile group or the top 3 percentile group. I hope this paper can help those of us that are successfully operating in the 97 percentile group and potentially keep you from making career and life decisions under false pretenses.

It’s definitely not the case that every officer starts with a strong career inclination. In fact, a solid 20% are deeply cynical about USAF life before they leave their commissioning source. One mistake the service makes is insisting everyone aim galactically from day one. Some just want to do very well for a few years and move on. They shouldn’t need to hide that fact to preserve opportunities. Good leaders will invite people to be honest with themselves and others about what they want from service life. This sets the right tone and prevents dissonance.

This paper is not about how you get promoted or what “the system” is. You are repeatedly told how to be #1, how to get promoted and what jobs are important to your career. This paper is about knowing your place and setting real expectations for your career. Too many times officers make decisions and focus on the careers of the top 3 percent (apx 3 percent of officers are promoted BTZ). This paper is for the other 97 percent serving diligently in the Air Force. It starts with this … “You are NOT a High Potential Officer (HPO) and you will NOT be Below the Zone (BTZ).”

There are two flawed and dangerous ideas here. The first is that you should “know your place.” Forget that idea, especially early in your career. The minute you mentally resign yourself to belonging in a certain career class, you will lose some ambition and stop pushing yourself to compete in certain ways. This may lead to a more contented mind in the short term, but you’ll hate yourself later when you realize how many opportunities passed you by because you pre-empted them with the attitude that they were only for others. The other wrong notion is this whole “3%” thing. That may be the number who make BTZ, but there’s another 15-20% reasonably postured to be in that 3% right up until they’re not, and that’s the pool who most fully expand and exploit their leadership potential. The catch is that many will self-eliminate from that group if they resign themselves to being part of some imaginary 97% interchangeable bloc. When this happens, it creates an opening for a lesser qualified officer to step in and capitalize. This is how we end up with a mediocre leadership corps.

It’s noble to not focus on promotion when setting career goals, but it can be taken too far. Do you want to command a squadron or cede that opportunity to others who may not care as much or be as qualified? Answer that question honestly before swearing off any thought of competing with others.

It’s a bold accusation to say someone will not be BTZ, I don’t even know who will read this paper. However, the numbers don’t lie. I can say you won’t be BTZ to every officer in the Air Force and only be wrong 3 percent of the time. [Not the case, though to quarrel in detail would be pedantic]. So if you have multiple DGs, all #1 rankings with one coming from a General you were an aide for, and you have one or two non AFSC specific annual awards Wing or above you probably have a shot at the top 3 percent and you have a shot at BTZ and this paper is not for you. For everyone else who is putting in the effort and doing a great job, “how do you know if you are in the top 3 percent?” Simply put, you don’t. This is good for the Air Force because it keeps all of us that think we are in the top 3 percent working harder than we would if we had known from the beginning we weren’t.

You don’t need all of that to make BTZ. It is routinely done with one or two of those components and nothing else. It also routinely doesn’t happen for people who have all of those squares checked. As Chris points out later, the process is timing-sensitive and difficult to predict. But my real quarrel here is the implication that any individual will or should be compelled to work less hard because s/he is not in the most promotable position. The only way you will ever “do something” or “be someone” [or hopefully both] is work as hard as your sustainable capacity permits during gametime, and to decompress when the system gives you a break.

The Air Force asks too much of its officers. That speaks to the need for a reformed system. But it would be foolish from an individual perspective to stop giving your full effort because of a flawed assumption that the system has forsaken you.

A few years ago all indications for my career were I would be in the top 3 percent. However, like many best laid plans this one never came to fruition. A fortunate side effect of being projected as top 3 percent was I received insight into the workings of the Air Force giving me a very unique perspective. I have seen so many officers that are never destined to be in the top 3 percent work as if they could be and make personal sacrifices as if they were, only to end their careers bitter and mad at the Air Force. A career path set with realistic expectations will greatly increase the likelihood of the officer having a healthy work, life balance and walk away from the Air Force happy. So for the officers who fall within the 97 percentile group here is what I have learned.

With the benefit of this paragraph, we see a little more of what Chris meant in the previous one, and it’s good advice. Don’t kill yourself for a promotion. Work hard, do your best, and hope it works out.

Colonel John Boyd states “you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” In this quote Colonel Boyd indicates it’s all one or the other. I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive but his underlying implication definitely still rings true today.

If you look beyond his actual words you see another message … rank does not limit your impact on the Air Force, only you can limit your impact on the Air Force. This is a specifically compelling message to officers falling in the 97 percentile group and is the basis for why I wrote this paper. Hopefully this paper can alleviate the pain, disappointment and feeling that your career is over which is experienced by most officers the first time they realize they are in the 97 percentile group.

Generally, it is good advice to decouple the motivation to make a difference from the rank on one’s shoulder. But let’s not fool ourselves: rank is keyed to impact. You need enough of it to make the impact you seek. In my experience, the number one complaint from officers is that they can’t stand working for inept or corrupt leaders. The best solution to that problem is for the “good guys” to stay in the fight and crowd out the losers.

“A man must know his destiny. if he does not recognize it, then he is lost.” – Gen. George S. Patton

Your Air Force Realities:

Your career is not over if you do not get School or BTZ, you can still make great contributions to the Air Force and provide many positive influences to your Airmen. The old adage, “bloom where you are planted” is still relevant. Hard work and being good at your job will get you promoted on-time and it will ensure you have a lasting career in the Air Force.

Superb advice not often enough given.

1) You will do everything right, fill every box and still be promoted on time: There are parts of getting promoted BTZ that are out of your control. Timing is everything … you can’t control who your Senior Rater is or who else is competing with you for promotion. You can only control the work you do; outside of that your [fate] is in someone else’s hands. It doesn’t matter, because promotions don’t indicate your worth and only you can limit the impact you make.

Timing isn’t everything, but it matters a lot in early promotions. That doesn’t mean you should hand Jesus the aircraft and stop steering toward your objectives. If you register your best performance, the system will either do the rest or it won’t. If you go passive and don’t register your best performance, nothing is possible. There is no guiding hand of fate here. It’s on you to position yourself.

“The greatness of a leader is measured by the achievements of the led. This is the ultimate test of his effectiveness.” — Gen. Omar Bradley

2) There is no second on ramp: Once you are off the “fast-track” you will always be off the “fast-track.” Yes, there are stories of the one officer who got promoted 2 BTZ to Colonel and got back on track. It happens … to two people and it is another conversation piece to keep the 97 percent group working harder than they should be. This doesn’t mean if you do great work you won’t make Colonel, but it does mean you won’t be a Wing CC. There is no mechanism to get officers back on the “fast-track.” Your track starts at the 8 year point when you get promoted to Major and you are either a school select or you aren’t. It doesn’t matter because as an officer who did great things you will still be a DO, SQ/CC and make Lt Col and probably Colonel.

Yes, too much is determined by whether someone is a school select at the O-4 promotion board. When you consider the impact of SOS DG on the O-4 process, the system is prone to select many of the wrong people. The assumption is that the “wrong ones” will self-eliminate as their true capability is exposed, but this is a flawed assumption. We don’t ask many of our majors to lead people. It’s easy to hide flaws sitting on a staff creating slides. When we do shove lesser O-4s into the deep end, they tend to have their deficiencies masked by benefactors or are pragmatic and crafty enough to dance between the raindrops and keep progressing.

It’s a massive systemic flaw. But the truth is that an “on-ramp” opens up every time someone who was on the fast track bails out, which happens more often than is widely realized. Plenty of people who thought they were done ended up in command at the O-5 and even O-6 level because they kept turning in great performances and were pressed into bigger roles when the opportunity arose. Stay active in the bullpen.

At the same time, if you’re not competing at your best level of effort for IDE, you likely will not be a commander and almost certainly won’t make colonel. Command is a pool overwhelmingly comprised of officers with competitive records, to include residence school attendance. If you’re a major who didn’t get IDE, you should be honest with yourself about the narrower and likely shorter career path before you. But if you’re a captain who hasn’t yet competed, don’t believe for a second you can power your way to command by doing great things. You also need the institutional seal of approval to give yourself a strong chance.

3) You will work for and earn every acknowledgement: There are officers that seem to catch all the luck. If you are in the 97 percent group this will rarely be you. You will work twice as hard as those around you and you will not be recognized for this with promotions. Your peers and subordinates will know how good you are but leadership will overlook you when high profile events, jobs, promotions and pushes come. It doesn’t matter because your Airmen love you, the mission is better because of you and you always maintain your integrity.

Luck is smaller than you think. Strong performers make their own luck by opening new opportunities for themselves with proven, consistent excellence. Don’t buy into the myth that everyone who gets promoted early got lucky. Some of them are just that good.

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure … than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Roosevelt

4) You will be promoted at the same time as officers who did little to no work: Not everyone carries their weight. While it is frustrating to see, officers that gave the minimum amount of effort will be promoted the exact same time as you. It doesn’t matter because you give it your all regardless of other’s efforts and you would never compromise your reputation or name because of someone else’s lack of output.

This is a huge problem. The services all need the freedom to reform how they promote, and I am disappointed CSAF is not pushing for this.

5) You will lose an annual award despite deploying and doing everything right: The system is sometimes bigger than one individual. While you may have earned the annual award you may not win the annual award. There are more factors than just what you did over the last year. Promotability, PRF timing, Patch non Patch, New CC, New person PCS’d in, your history, previous accomplishments from years past as compared to your peers. Awards are important for promotions and they are even more important for BTZ promotions. While you will usually win what you earn there will be instances where a BTZ potential officer gets an award over you. It doesn’t matter because it won’t keep you from getting promoted on time; they are nice to get but not a necessity for the 97 percent group.

While it is highly career field-dependent, awards don’t generally matter that much in promotion and school selection. Stratification and special program selection matter much more. And it’s a good thing, because awards are basically a joke. They are accurately given maybe half of the time, and we give so many of them that they are nigh on meaningless even when accurately bestowed.

6) You will do IDE & SDE by correspondence: People you think you are better than (and may very well be better than) will come out on the promotion lists as school selects. Attending school as a non-select has become a statistical outlier. You will complete IDE and SDE via correspondence. It doesn’t matter because IDE and SDE make you a better officer which makes you better at taking care of your Airmen so you will do them correspondence because it’s the right thing to do.

Correspondence courses are of little value. They don’t challenge or develop most people. They exist so the service can claim to be developing those who don’t attend in residence, and so those people can register a statement about their commitment to a career despite being left off the fast track. If you’re stuck doing them, invest only the minimum time necessary to extract whatever value you can. Don’t be fooled into thinking anyone will notice if you have to repeat a test or if you score perfectly. It’s a binary proposition.

7) Making Colonel does not make you an HPO: HPOs are BTZ officers and really multiple times BTZ officers. HPOs are tracked and placed differently than non HPO officers. Making Colonel is a huge accomplishment but you must be able to scope the realities of the way you made Colonel. On time Colonels are not equal to BTZ Colonels and the same is true for Lieutenant Colonels. HPOs will be Group CCs and Wing CCs. On time, non HPO successful Colonels will be Deputy Groups CCs and Vice Wing CCs. It doesn’t matter, all these jobs are amazing and as the Deputy and Vice you get more time to focus on the Airmen … both still get DV parking and DV billeting for the rest of their lives.

This is all true, and great mentorship. The Air Force doesn’t often share this level of honesty for fear of demotivating its officers, but the fact is that not all O-6s are built alike, and they’re not all amazing. Some got there by surviving or being in the right place at the right time. The scale of leadership changes drastically at O-6, so it’s where we see the Peter Principle most vividly. 

It’s also the case that the best leaders at O-5/O-6 will not necessarily be generals. That is a totally political process which expertly weeds out most critical thinkers by demanding a track record of institutional fealty, which is basically inconsistent with taking care of people under the prevailing circumstances. This isn’t something we can change without a maverick and empowered SECAF. It’s just something to know going in.

8) You will be sought out for the hard and politically sensitive tasks: Officers that are on time and perform are perfect for missions that have to get done but are not popular. Despite being the go-to officer the reality will still be you are not BTZ. Meaningfulness to the organization does not always equate into rankings and promotions (see #5). It doesn’t matter because there is greatness in accomplishing the mission and pride in being the one sought out … if you worked for the money or the promotion you would be in a civilian company, but you work for the Air Force, Its Airmen and the Mission.

It’s universal within and beyond the Air Force that politics is the dominant factor in dirty job selection. Chris is right. Don’t be fooled into thinking they love you just because they trust you. While the two should go together, they don’t in the Air Force.


Once you understand the realities of your situation you can make realistic goals and set realistic expectations for your career. A clear understanding of your actual [vs.] perceived promotability allows you to reorient your efforts on to what matters which is the people, the mission and your personal life. Promotions for the 97 percent group are earned partially through individual achievements but mostly through the achievements of the great Airmen they lead.

As long as you do what you can under the circumstances you are put in, nothing else matters. It’s a fact; you will never be taken care of or given anything beyond what you earn. It will be earned through your blood, sweat and tears and even then you probably won’t be given what you deserve. But you know what? Being old and looking back the one thing I hold dear and the one thing I remember is the relationships I developed with my Airmen. I remember the times I was able to help them when no one else would, I remember the joy on their faces when they run into me unexpectedly, I remember their successes and I remember the difference one person could make in an Airmen’s life. I remember the Airmen.

There are Air Force officers who have lost their way. They have become consumed with making rank, getting a ranking and what their leadership thinks of them. Unfortunately, the Air Force as a whole and most importantly the Airmen are the ones who suffer for this. So while we all know terrible officers that have made rank or won awards, in the grand scheme of things and in life in general they will have made no impact. They are paper officers that have no real accomplishments to hang their hat on, they have no real results to point to when asked about their successes and they will never be sought out by their Airmen. I would rather not make rank, be ranked last and have my Airmen look up to me, then to live a life where all I sought regardless of the impact to others was my rank and promotion. In a sea of officers who have lost their way the ones that have properly prioritized are viewed as being off course because they are different; when in reality the officers who have properly set their priorities are the only ones on the right course and ultimately the ones keeping the Air Force on-track.

At least once every year, ask yourself where you are professionally and where you’re going. Ask this question through your own eyes and then through the eyes of the Air Force. If you need help knowing how the Air Force sees you, ask someone wise who you trust — hopefully your commander. Be honest with yourself (and those you mentor), and then chart a course. Fly the aircraft. Don’t give up or go passive. Always know what you’ll do if the plan fails. And then let the system do what it does, understanding that it’s less like an efficient machine and more like a messy organism.

But make no mistake, the system is badly warped and in need of adjustment. That’s a different article for a different day.

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