Staying in Step for a Successful Military Life

The Butter Bar Years: Lessons & Advice

by | May 24, 2020 | Career & Learning, Leadership

This weekend I promoted for the first time and traded in my butter bars for silver ones! Although right now it’s pretty much a 100% promotion rate from second to first lieutenant–MADE IT, btw–I’m still proud of my first two years in the military and excited to see what’s ahead.

I’ve found it interesting when comparing people’s experiences as second lieutenants from different vantage points in military careers. If you ask a field grade or general officer, a lot of them will say being a butter bar was some of the most low-pressure fun they’ve had in their career and to enjoy it while you can. If you ask a current butter bar, many (most?) would not describe it as “low-pressure” or “fun” and can’t wait to promote and not be at the bottom of the food chain any more!

I’m sure it’s because we grow and develop as we age and progress in our careers; our viewpoints change as we change! Knowing that I’m going to see things differently in a year, ten years, twenty years down the road, I want to record and “lock in” the lessons I’ve learned as a second lieutenant so I don’t forget them later. I’ve split them up into three categories: lessons I learned, advice I’d give to other 2Lts, and leadership lessons I will not forget when I’m older.

Lessons I’ve learned as a 2Lt:

  • The “Butter Bar Shield” is both a blessing and a curse. You can claim ignorance on things (and should, when you legitimately need help to learn), but it also means sometimes people will assume you are ignorant and you’ll have to fight that assumption. Balancing teachability with confidence is a difficult thing, but there’s no better time to work it out than when you’re a 2Lt!
  • A good SNCO is worth their weight in gold. I knew this cerebrally going into the real Air Force, but it is TRUE. I prayed for months before going into my first AD assignment that God would send me somewhere with a good, experienced SNCO I could learn from. He did! The first SNCO I had, MSgt Henriquez, is who I prayed for. He never rolled his eyes at my questions and made time to have “LT learning times” in his office when I wanted to know more about something. He gave me real career, life, and leadership advice that was backed up by his own actions. If you aren’t lucky enough to be paired with a good SNCO, seek one out. Even if it means finding one in another flight or squadron and having unofficial mentorship coffee meetings or something, FIND ONE.

Advice for other 2Lts:

  • As a butter bar, you probably get a lot of (oftentimes unsolicited) advice and feedback. You don’t have to follow everyone’s advice. Just because someone is higher in rank than you doesn’t automatically mean they know you and what you need to be a good leader.
    That being said, balance discernment with humility. Take every piece of advice or feedback you receive and weigh it out. Is there truth in it, even if it hurts? When you look at that person’s life/leadership, is he/she someone you want to emulate in some way? In every case of advice I’ve received so far, I have learned something. In some cases, it was valuable insight I’ve applied to my life. In other cases, it’s valuable insight in how I don’t want to live my life. Curate the guidance you receive to become the best version of yourself that is vectored toward your goals.
  • Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Put yourself out there! When you’re a 2Lt, it really feels like the pressure is on. The pressure to learn fast, the pressure to lead right out of the gate, the pressure to have it together and be seen as high speed. That pressure mixed with very little experience or competence is hard to handle! It is *inevitable* that you will make mistakes. Don’t miss out on putting yourself out there for leadership, development, or learning opportunities because you aren’t sure if you will measure up. Get out there, work hard, and if you fail… learn and move forward. I am comforted by the fact that the more epic the fail, the better the “Well, when I was an LT…” story will be later, ha!
  • You don’t need to know the answers to be confident. So now I’m talking about confidence after saying “You WILL fail” and “People will assume you don’t know a lot”? How does that work?! Herein lies the butter bar paradox: how to lead confidently while not having 95% of the knowledge/ experience/ answers you need. The great thing I’ve learned is that I don’t need to know everything to be confident. I can be confident in the things I *do* know and learn along the way, and I can be confident in my team that will help me. Even if I don’t have an answer, I can confidently say that I will find an answer.
  • It DOES get easier. Over time, all the systems, the jargon, the AF culture just sort of moves to the back of your mind as it begins to feel more “normal.” As you acclimate, you won’t have to devote as much headspace to all these little things throughout your day, and you’ll have more energy to focus on the “real” parts of your job. It just takes time.

Now that I’m promoting to 1Lt, I still don’t feel like I know all the answers, and I’m not sure I ever will. What I am confident in is that I better know what questions to ask and where to find answers. Those have been my two greatest skills developed as a 2Lt.

Leadership lessons I will not forget when I’m older & higher ranking:

  • Not every 2Lt comes in with the same skill set. Butter bars are all the same rank, but they’re very diverse people. Some are right out of college, some have “adult life” experience, some are prior-enlisted. Some have experienced and grown from very difficult circumstances; for others joining the Air Force may be the hardest thing they’ve ever done. I’ll learn the individual strengths of each LT in my circle and not make assumptions about their competence.
  • Not every 2Lt needs to be created in my image. I won’t measure other LTs by the LT I used to be, and I won’t seek to mold them into a mini version of myself. In my workplace, I will leave room for varying personalities, work styles, and experiences. Just because they’re different from me doesn’t mean they are a weakness to be shored up. Help them become the best version of themselves that they can be.
  • Things mean more because of my FGO/GO rank. Whether I feel scary or intimidating or not, the things I say will oftentimes mean more to a 2Lt than I realize in the moment. A passing comment can be taken to heart, a public correction can cut deep. On the other hand, telling an LT something they’ve done well could be the highlight of their year. I’ll be mindful of my words and the contexts in which I say them.


If you’re an LT, what are your top lessons you’ve learned so far that you’d share with others?
If you’re O-3+ or enlisted, what lessons have you learned from a lieutenant at some point in your career?


  1. Annalise Blaylock

    No matter rank, people are people and their respective maturity levels vary. Find a way to find common ground with a peep-O and let the rest fall away. You don’t have to be best friends.

    Toxic leaders are out there. Find a way to personally cope. Keep confidants close when needing to dump and process emotions/experiences. But also realize: it’s temporary.

    Be aware and a proponent for NOT allowing sexism, preferential treatment, or the “good ole boys club” to deter your experience. It often will slither in quietly but be vigilant and shine a light on it using existing resources (IG).

    Take the new Lts under your wing. The first few years can be tumultuous. Look to be generous with checking-in, offering advice, delegating tasks that will being them some positive visibility.

    Obtain a mindset that you’re here for ______ and not the rank. Doing the right thing by taking care of your people will influence leaps and bounds more than just the focus on your own career. Plus, you have no idea who can “put in good” for you once you’ve done the work for someone else.

    • Emileigh

      YES! This is all good stuff! I especially love the taking new LTs under your wing. I think sometimes people have the “I had a rough time as an LT so you should, too” mentality, and it really doesn’t help anyone.
      And also yes to not letting anyone else’s discriminatory, dumb ideas about you get in your way. Don’t take that crap!
      It’s all good. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Laura

    Congrats on the promotion! I love your comments about what you will remember, for my first two ranks I kept telling myself, I should write a book! Add a chapter per rank so I don’t become the leaders I detest and I do become the ones that have taken care of me.

    The first time I took an LT (and the second one too haha) under my wing as a Capt I did exactly what no one else had done for me. After every production meeting she briefed myself and the Superintendent and then we made suggestions and helped her craft her brief instead of throwing her in the fire like I had done to me. My other Superintendent (Guard guy so been stationed there forever) was flabbergasted. He had never seen a Maintenance Officer mentor a fellow maintenance officer like we did with our LTs.

    I have been so tired of being treated like crap because “that’s how I was brought up and look how I turned out”. The chain needs to be broken somewhere, hopefully we started a new one!

    • Emileigh

      That’s SO AWESOME! Especially for maintenance; from what I’ve heard, it does seem to have a lot of the “It sucked for me, so it should suck for you, too” mentality that’s so damaging. Mentoring those who come after us makes us ALL better! We ALL need it!


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