Sandhurst Flagpole Test

There is a mental exercise — probably used by every military organisation since Alexander — which was described to me as a sprogling in Deepest Africa by a Rhodesian officer as “The Sandhurst Flagpole Test.”

“Sandhurst” being, of course, the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, but I’ve heard various iterations of the same riddle posed to me in the U.S. Army.

Anyhoo, the test is as such: a bright young proto-officer is brought into a room where he faces a panel of instructors. This proto-officer is told that the next exercise is a mental one, that the parameters are that he is the officer in charge of a small unit consisting of a sergeant, a corporal and ‘X’ number of soldiers. There is equipment consisting of one standard two-piece flagpole, digging implements, various lengths of rope and bags of concrete. The proto-officer is informed that the task assigned is to erect a flagpole on that very spot, and asked what orders he would give to effectuate this?

At this point, the hapless cadet usually begins giving precise details of whom would be ordered to do what, leading to the lead instructor raising a paw and solemnly announcing that the proto-officer has failed the exercise.

The flustered proto-officer is then informed that there is one order, and one order only, which would pass the test, and that order is: “Sergeant, get that flagpole up.”

This test is variously cited as being a warning against micro-managing, an exhortation to know thy limits, proper utilisation to talents, so one and so forth.

I have used it through-out my career as a demonstration that senior staff were micro-managing.


I have recently been dragged, kicking and screaming, over to the Dark Side — by which I mean I have been promoted to Command Staff with a title along with a new rank.

Yay, me.

A great deal of my new duties involve dealing with humor-impaired State-level functionaries and the occasional snoop-and-poop by said functionaries.

We have recently endured one such event, and by the second day I literally almost broke down into screaming obscenities in our living room.

The next day, I was in the middle of going to get ID-10T forms from a clerk that were an inspectable item, when I was stopped by another supervisor.

Said worthy asked what I was about and I told him, then he looked at me and ordered me to hold my left index finger in a crooked position and my right index finger rigid.

He hooked a coffee mug over my left finger, picked up a mug of his own, reached out with his right index finger and activated the phone on the desk. The clerk answered, the supervisor stated, “It’s audit time again. We need the forms,” the clerk responded, “What, already? Oh, that’s why ‘Dog’s been in my office three times today. Wish he’d’ve … on my way!”


As I watched, my compatriot took a sip of coffee, cocked an eyebrow at me over the rim of his mug and opined, gently, “It’s not your job to do things anymore. It’s your job to give things to other people to do.”

At this time I would like to announce to everyone whom I have — in the past — sat down and admonished: “You just failed the Flagpole Test” …

… I like my crow with BBQ sauce.


Le Derp-phone c'est mort
Colorado shoots itself in the foot ... again.

50 thoughts on “Sandhurst Flagpole Test”

  1. It'll be hard to get out of the old habits, but congratulations on movin' on up!! 🙂

  2. Dawg, email me a safe mailing address and I will happily send you a bottle of Gates bbq sauce. Seriously.
    (I met you& big Reno once in the Decatur Wal-Mart parking lot…)

  3. I've managed people for decades, and there's a necessity to delegate, but it doesn't mean you're not required to pitch in, when necessary.

    This can shock people, especially when they realize you weren't feeding them crap on your experience.

    The only drawback is when you're affectionately – or not – referred to as "old man". That can leave a substantial bruise on your ego.

  4. Our immediate "supervisor" was recently terminated, for lying to subordinates and superior by omission; discussion with the FodGuy resulted in his comment "As a Marine, I would expect you to rise to the challenge if offered the position", after my demurrals regarding applying for the position – which, yes, like you, I would be dragged into kicking and screaming – just let me patrol, PLEASE?!? 😉

    Semper Fi'

  5. Sometimes, the urge to "pitch in" is very much warranted. And sometimes it isn't. When I was a Navy LT I walked around a corner where I saw a new Ensign swabbing the deck while a group of 3 E-3s watched with rapt attention. Before I said anything my Senior Chief walked up to me and said "I've got this elltee." The conversation went something like this:

    Senior: What are you doing, Ensign?
    Ensign: I'm making sure these shipmates know how to do this, Senior. I'm setting a leadership example.
    Senior: Ah, I see, sir. May I help out?
    Ensign: Of course, Senior Chief.
    Senior: (to the assembled E-3s). Swab this deck.
    Assembled E-3s: Aye, Senior Chief.
    (Exit Senior Chief, stage right)

  6. This is exactly why I've resisted being promoted into management. Watching people do jobs that I know I can do better does my blood pressure no good.

    But better is the enemy of good enough, and sometimes the organization will settle for a good enough job being done in the trenches in order to make a better person available for a different (and more important, although it may not feel like it) job.

  7. We used to joke that the most common on the job injury for a police sergeant was repetitive motion injury to the left index finger.

    Drive up, press power window button, do some supervisor talk, press power window button, drive away.

  8. Sympathies, Lawdog, though I would add the gloss that any Sandhurst officer cadet who simply said, quietly, "Carry on, Sergeant" would be marked for accelerated promotion; this being the preferred style when, a few lifetimes ago, I considered the British Army as a career.

    My connections, most of whom had been in uniform, and under fire, briefed me fully that this was the regulation way to deal with any routine problem.

    They also told me that when the bullets were flying, that was the time I should be out in front. Seemed fair enough advice, and I tried to follow it in my civilian careers.

  9. Ah yes… BTDT, and all I can say is hang in there, it DOES sort itself out after a while… And ummm… congratulations???

  10. LD, I've had some supervisors whose opnions and orders, I ignored completely and immediately to no ill effect.

    I've also had some whose opinions and orders I listened carefully to and complied with happily and completely.

    I kinda think that after you become accustomed to command, you'll be the second kind. Hell, you probably already are.


    Gerry N.

  11. rats!! phat phingered the keboard.

    The word I was so desperately seeking is: Congratulations.

    Gerry N.

  12. Which variety of BBQ sauce, LD?

    I mean, there's North Carolina hot peppers and vinegar, South Carolina mustard-based, the various tomato-based sauces… 😛

    (FWIW, I prefer a spicy/sweet tomato-based sauce on birds)

    Now, as long as the additional $$ more-or-less makes up for the additional headaches, congrats!

  13. It's been said that if you don't learn to take orders, you'll never be properly able to give them. You will do just fine. On a lighter note…

    Some decades past, a buddy of mine was a young U.S. Marine with a personality best described as “irrepressible “. One fine day during peace time, he was assigned as duty driver. As luck would have it, his duty sent him driving by his platoon leader, whereupon our hero took the opportunity to salute smartly as he rolled past and holler “Lieutenant, you’re in charge until I get back”. Upon his return, he was hauled on the carpet and, as I’m sure you can imagine, informed in very direct fashion that his chain of command was not amused. His reply? “Well, he was wasn’t he?”

  14. I've heard plenty of times, from plenty of veterans, that it's the NCO's who run the service. Some said the officers are there to look purty, drink coffee, and sign the paperwork.

  15. In your defense, the Sandhurst/West Point test is for bright shiny would be young lieutenants who don't know any better, and thus assume the underlings are a sorry lot of sodding wankers.

    Being experienced with the underlings first hand, you operate on the same understanding, except not arrived at from assumption, but by years of close association and direct observation.

    In practice, the only appreciable difference between officers inspecting to ensure a task is accomplished, and senior NCO types doing the exact same thing, is which one is allowed to utilize the tip of their boot during such supervisory activities.

  16. As I ran a construction company from scratch to multistate large projects,
    It came to me very early that "Get that flagpole up, now!" worked well.
    P.S. I would not read a report that was not on one sheet of paper (with backup).
    You will do very well in any position you find yourself, as long as you don't have to answer kites in longhand anymore 😉

  17. All new jobs have an adjustment period. I'm sure you'll get the hang of it. Congrats.

  18. When I was in management, I looked at my job as having two functions. 1-Protecting my staff from the stupid shit that upper management did.
    2- Protecting upper management from the stupid shit that my staff did.

  19. LD – I'd recomend a tomato based BBQ sauce. I like my bird with a smokey heat that reminds me not to do that again.

    As a side note anyone who can write like you do should be concise in their orders, flowery in their recomendations and razor sharp in their diagnosis of FUBAR behavior.

    Enjoy your command position, RHIP.

  20. Now the trick of being a Manager is to make sure that your minions know exactly what to do without you telling them more than say Once.

    make sure that whoever cooks your Crow its Baked or Roasted or BBQd

    (you need to watch your ticker)

  21. Failed or no, I never ask a subordinate to do anything I am unwilling to do myself. Ah well. Congrats! Kicking and screaming not-withstanding.

  22. LD, congrats, and a small reminder: It is difficult to do your job supervising when you are down in the ditch waist to waist and shoulder with the ditch diggers. Many a ditch has gone in the wrong direction due to the supervisor not being where he can see it all from where he belongs.

  23. Been there done that. Hardest thing in world in being responsible for other peoples actions.+

  24. "That Guy said…

    When I was in management, I looked at my job as having two functions. 1-Protecting my staff from the stupid shit that upper management did.
    2- Protecting upper management from the stupid 'shit that my staff did.

    7:46 AM"



  25. Heh! That works in numerous environments. As a newbie software development manager, I had my episode, too.

    Really, the Flagpole Test is applicable in just about every situation where there is a leader and a team involved.

  26. Legend was that the NYPD had a similar question for prospective captains on how to put down a riot, where the captain had, under his command, a lieutenant, three sergeants and fifty officers.

    The correct answer was, of course, "Lieutenant, put down the riot."

  27. Congrats on your new position and promotion. Enjoy your crow (at least you're man enough to eat it). I would have given a great deal to have one of your ilk in my chain of command. Based on your writings, it sounds like you're a leader, not just a manager.

  28. Lawdog: My sympathies on your absorption by the Dark Side.

    At least as important: I'm glad to see you posting again. With more than a month since the last one, I had begun to wonder if something serious was wrong.

  29. There was a recent topic in a comment thread at my blog on the subject of "good management." The general consensus was that a good manager stays out of the way. A great manager clears the way. As one commenter noted, a Lt. Col. of the Army once advised him that the job of manager was defined as "the 3-D's" – Dictate, Delegate, Disappear.

    Welcome to management. I expect you to be a great one.

  30. LD, the hardest thing I ever had to do once I hit management was learn how to delegate work to my subordinates. Been management for nearly 20 years now and still struggle with it on occasion.

    I think the biggest thing to remember is that just because they take an approach that is different from yours, as long as they arrive safely at the assigned goal, it's all good.

    Congrats on the promotion. Well-deserved, I'm sure.

  31. I wore the flak vest to absorb all incoming micromanaging BS, and free my subordinates to get the job done with as little interference as possible. Even though I could do the job as well as or better than many (thanks to excellent NCOs), they had to have the opportunity to learn to do it. After all, I wouldn't always be there and was not indispensible. Rarely did they let me down, always did they appreciate my delegate and get out of the way approach.

    You'll be fine, Lawdog, as soon as you absorb the Sandhurst lesson.

  32. I believe it was Kim du Toit who had another lesson for managers. Paraphrased it was something like "The mark of a good manager is how many days he could be dead at his desk before someone noticed."

  33. ID-10T forms, I see what you did there. Congrats on the promotion, should I start buying stock in Mylanta now? Or Pepto Bismal?

  34. LawDog, congratulations on the promotion. Hopefully judicious use of that index finger will make those functionary visits more tolerable. I really enjoy your writing, and am glad to see you post again.

    Jim R

  35. I recall the same test given verbally in ROTC almost 50 years ago. When it came to me I gave the right answer cause I did not have clue how to give that flag pole up.

    I bet you will handle a coffee cup just fine.


  36. I would look around and be reasonably sure a source of suitable water was available – not necessarily convenient, just available – and then give the order.
    Never order the impossible and, unless your testing on purpose, don't withhold needed information.

  37. Spammers in the wire, hit the claymores!


    Almost forgot: It takes a while to figure out how go from one of the followers to the leader, don't feel bad. It's always worst for those of us who have been the go-getter/get-it-done types.

  38. Congrats (a bit belatedly) and here's to your "re"-education. How'd those ID-10T forms work for you? 😉

  39. MKEgal here…

    So if your bent left index finger was for the coffee cup, what was the straightened right index finger for?
    You said he dialed the phone, so it couldn't be that.

    And congrat's. You'll be great.

  40. Those ID-10T issues are more & more prevalent – comes from common sense becoming uncommon.
    You'll find a major computer problem is the C-K interface, an endless source of frustration with an occasional moment of amusement. C=chair, K=Keyboard.

  41. Thanks, Lawdog. I was able to use this to get my boss to 1.) let me do my job, 2.) throw support behind the idea that I should be able to delegate some of the multiple contradictory duties.

    Congrats on your promotion, and may you settle into it well!

  42. Chief DM Says, "Grats on the promotion. It may takes years but that flagpole will be erected."

  43. Lols and Gags, Lol Pictures, Funny Pictures, Lol is the Laugh out of Laugh where you can Fun Unlimited and Laughing Unlimited. Visit the Best Lol Network Ever, where you can every thing is lol and Funny, Troll Images, Funny Vidoes, Prank Peoples, Funny Peoples, Prank Images, Fail Pictures, Epic Pictures and Much More Fun and Entertainment

  44. I re-read this story every so often, as a reminder to myself to remember how I fit into the organization, and how that changes.

    You write well, LawDog. Puts me in mind of a combination of Pat McManus and Rudyard Kipling.

Comments are closed.