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Why Can’t the U.S. Military Grow Better Leaders?

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Army photo / Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Military personnel policy is equal parts art and science. If it were all science, the Pentagon and its military services would have figured out long ago how to get the most out of each man and woman in uniform, give them rewarding careers, and win wars to boot.

The fact that the U.S. military’s personnel engine isn’t firing on all cylinders is the topic of Tim Kane’s new book, Bleeding Talent: How the U.S. Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution. The one-time Air Force officer will elaborate on the topic at the Hudson Institute on Jan. 31, where he serves as chief economist (wow: two dismal sciences in a single scholar!). Battleland conducted this email chat with Kane last week.

What is the key point you’re trying to make in Bleeding Talent: How the U.S. Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution?

Kane9780230391277

Palgrave Macmillan

The personnel bureaucracy in the Pentagon is destroying the human capital invested in its troops, bleeding good people out into the civilian world but bleeding even more talent internally through mismanagement.

I learned while researching the book that presidents as far back as Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower tried to get the problem fixed. Only thanks to the constant patriotism of fresh generations of Americans is the Pentagon able to cover up the talent mismanagement. Recognizing that the U.S. military went through one successful radical transformation – adopting the All Volunteer Force in 1973 and ending the draft – I am calling for the next logical step.

A Total Volunteer Force will institute volunteerism during the entire career of our soldiers, not just on the first day. Currently, the military has one foot in the coercive past and one foot in the professional future, and it’s time to go all the way towards respecting and trusting the men and women who serve.

Speaking of revolution, as your subtitle does, what three changes would you make, if you could order them to happen to the military personnel system?

Number one, commanders at all levels would have hiring authority, which means that a wing commander in the Air Force or brigade commander in the Army would select their own unit commanders, executive officers, and so on.

On the flip side, officers would be free to apply to any open position and would be free to take any job offered so long as they met the qualifications. The whole inefficient mess of centrally-planning the job-assignments process would be eliminated, but HR officers would be more important than ever as mentors and advisers to local units.

The second priority would be to institute a more honest system of performance evaluations.

The current system lacks moral courage and really erodes the integrity of the people on both sides of evals. A better system would use forced rankings across multiple categories, meaning that only 10-20% of officers in a unit would be deemed top performers overall, and 10-20% would be ranked the weakest overall.

However, given multiple categories, many officers would might be ranked “top” in technical proficiency, leadership, or integrity. A separate evaluation from peers and subordinates would also be part of the performance record. This would help identify the best leaders as distinct from the best warriors, and the military should allow officers to do what they do best.

The third priority is lateral entry.

Allowing former officers to exit and re-enter and re-exit and re-enter, and to serve as long a career as they want without career-tenure constraints is essential to bringing fresh thinking into the U.S. military. Why in the world are we gearing up for cyber warfare and simultaneously barring veterans now working for Symantec, Cisco, or Google to rejoin the ranks? That is folly.

By most accounts, we have the best military in the history of the world. Why risk tinkering with success?

Our military is the best, and that is almost entirely because of what the military does right: recruiting, training, and educating the best leaders and soldiers in the world.

But the Army has gotten this good by constantly innovating – new weapons systems, new operational structures, new branches (Air Force!). What the Army hasn’t done is to fundamentally innovate its HR system since 1973. In fact, the bureaucracy has gotten worse. Evals are inflated. Force shaping is a disaster. Career planning is impossible as the technology battlespace evolves.

My survey and others identify a rise of toxic leaders as a result, and 55% of active-duty officers want the system to be radically reformed.

You say that military leaders are naturally “entrepreneurial” and that the Total Volunteer Force would capitalize on that by allowing much faster promotions for the best and brightest. Do you risk creating a generation of George Custers without the necessary experience before command?

Look, the U.S. has had something like 10 top commanders of our forces in Afghanistan over 10 years because the incentives today generate ticket-punching, not experience.

Mid-level officers rotate in and out of jobs so fast that they are not operationally optimized, and that merry-go-round costs lives. The military-promotion system now is on the far end of the spectrum biased toward seniority and away from merit. That’s a problem. It rules out the George Custers, true, but also the Jack Gavins and Elmo Zumwalts.

The bottom line is that the U.S. military aims for senior officer mediocrity.

The alternative is to let commanders hire and promote the best men and women possible. That may mean a few 30 year-old colonels. It also means a lot off 40-year old captains who are natural pilots and warriors, but neither interested or talented at being high-ranked staffers.

In my ideal Navy, Maverick would still be flying his Tomcat. Today, he’s either working on a spreadsheet or PowerPoint in the Pentagon basement, or he’s flying a 747 out of Hong Kong as a civilian pilot for United Airlines.

Are the problems you cite on the “software” side of the military – people – better, worse, or the same on the hardware, weapons-buying side?

Worse by half on the people side.

Buying hardware is relatively easy, because the economic forces of supply and demand are simpler. You can centrally plan hardware, but not people because human capital is not made up of interchangeable parts.

Yet the whole system of year groups and specialty codes is only in place to make the slating process manageable, as if it were an inventory problem.

When Secretary of War Elihu Root ran the U.S. military at the start of the last century, the Army and Navy could treat muscle as just another part of inventory. That era ended long ago, but those management rules still dominate how talent gets treated until about the O-6 level.

Labor supply from a talent perspective is recognized as much more diverse, and a couple centuries of capitalism prove that the efficient sorting of supply and demand will emerge from markets in a way that can never be achieved by central planning.

Kane author photoDSCN8195

Kristen McIntyre

Tim Kane

Isn’t some of the inefficiency built into the U.S. military services and their personnel shops just part of the “white noise” of democracy?

Not at all!

Just think about the great leaders in American history who would never make rank in our system. George Washington took a 16-year hiatus as an entrepreneur between his four years as a major to his appointment as commander in chief. That’s lateral entry: now illegal.

Dwight Eisenhower was a staff officer and Robert E. Lee was an engineer, both way off the operational golden path necessary to make general today. More to the point, Ike would have been rotated out of his role as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in 1943 to give someone else a turn.

Democracy is a values-based political system with liberty at its core, but our military has evolved to be less respectful of individual autonomy.

The “needs of the [service]” is used to justify bad job matching. And for those who want to believe that service values are in conflict with market values, take off the rose-colored glasses. Massive retention bonuses and a 20-year cliff retirement scheme are used to coerce senior officers instead of the simple alternative of giving officers control of their own career choices with a 401K savings package.

Why the distrust of free markets by general officers? I don’t know, but I suspect it is because they have literally not known anything different. They trust the market for police officers to protect American streets (which are dangerous) but not the market for platoon commanders in Korea?

Would the imposition of a draft, or some kind of national service, make the changes you believe are needed more or less likely to happen?

A draft would be a step backward from the professional Army toward a so-called citizen Army, involving more coercion and even worse retention and morale.

In fact, one of the chapters of Bleeding Talent is about the “myth of the stupid soldier,” which is a hangover stereotype from the 60s generation. Some research I did years ago proved that our enlistees are both smarter, and from wealthier neighborhoods, than their civilians peers. We can thank the volunteer professional service values for that, which would be ruined by a renewed draft. Over 90% of active duty troops prefer the AVF over a draft. I suspect 90% will also favor the Total Volunteer Force over the AVF — even the generals and admirals.

Is one military service better at personnel management than the others? Worse? Are the problems service-specific, or Pentagon-wide?

I served in the Air Force myself, which has its own distinct challenges due to the advent of unmanned aircraft which is shaking up what some call the caste system of rated and unrated officers.

But basically, the problems are Pentagon-wide simply because personnel policies were standardized by the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (a 1980 law that governs the up-or-out promotion process) and previous defense secretaries. I understand that some services, notably the Marines, are better in some areas such as evaluations, but there really is no service that has tried to break free of what former defense secretary Robert Gates called the “institutional concrete” that is bleeding our military talent.

You’re a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Why should anyone from West Point or Annapolis listen to you?

I focused my research and writing on the Army specifically because I am not from the Army, though I have some credibility as a fellow officer.

If my research focused on the Air Force, it would be instantly categorized as sour grapes. The same constraints bind my friends who wore Army greens. They couldn’t write this, certainly not if they were on active duty.

But I also picked the Army because I have more faith that it can lead this revolution in a way that the Navy and Air Force can’t. Those branches get personnel issues intertwined with their weapons systems. Maybe the Marines could be the catalyst, or the Coast Guard, but I suspect the big three would see reforms there as idiosyncratic.

The real people the Army should be listening to are not policy wonks at think tanks like me, but their own officers.

Internal Army surveys say that 20% of Army commanders are “toxic leaders.” External surveys – I conducted one of 250 West Point graduates – paint a crystal-clear picture of the personnel reforms that would work. The problem is not who is talking, because reformers have been talking for 75 years, but who is listening.

The good news is this current generation of senior Army leaders is hungry for change, and impatient with bureaucratic nonsense. They are hardened by war, and that’s exactly the kind of officer corps that pushed for the AVF in 1973 at the end of our fighting in Vietnam. That suggests 2013 is going to be a great year for reform.

28 comments
Sailor8707
Sailor8707

OK, the up or out BS... If you had a GM2 who was the best at his core as an instructor (as compared to a more senior rank in his rate) should you let him go, promote him, or send him back to sea( where the real teaching would have definite impact)? Un fortunately, our leaders do not run the military, no account, nutless congress-persons do. They (congressman or at lest the majority)) have never served a a day in the military. So who are they to say what is good, just, right and appropriate for our Armed Forces???

Sailor8707
Sailor8707

I really like the idea in Robert Heinlein had in Starship Troopers, in order to have a say in government you must do service.Only then you truly realize the sacrifice. 

OldCombatVet
OldCombatVet

Mr. Kane makes some good proposals, but the tone is too aggressive, too certain for my taste. His fundamental conceit - that change is necessary - is true and good. His proposed changes may be the most obvious, but may not be the best, or easiest to effect, or even desirable.

1) *Army soldiers / sergeants / officers are generally better educated and smarter than their civilian peers.* He must have research to back this up, but the empirical evidence I saw as an infantry officer over two deployments was the precise opposite. Intelligence and education have nothing to do with discipline or effectiveness as a human being or emotional intelligence - but again, during my two combat deployments to Afghanistan and trainup between, I saw much more of "Private McAuslan" than "Private Ender." Maybe in the Air Force and Navy it's different. I suppose it would have to be. It's important to establish that the Army - the combat Army, anyway - isn't, maybe, as qualified and rational as Mr. Kane claims because of

2) *peer and subordinate reviews will improve the officer corps.* This type of system works very well for highly-educated systems, and would probably be great in the Air Force and Navy, but infantry commanders who have to worry about making unpopular tactical decisions will be less effective and less aggressive than their peers. How do I know this? Again - deployments! In places where commanders and their subordinate officers worried about how others were perceiving them, they were less willing to take risks, which in combat is an awful place to be. If this is open to Sergeants and Soldiers for the Lieutenants, it could be even worse for morale.

3) *The problem of 20% Toxic Leaders.* This is addressed but quickly dropped, and it's assumed that the peer and subordinate reviews could correct the issue. I think it's the top issue facing the Army and the Marines, because Toxic Leadership is often confused with Audacious Bold Leadership by superior officers. I think Mr. Kane overestimates the effect that peer and subordinate reviews would have on reducing Toxic Leadership, and would propose an alternate method: In a targeted effort to reduce Toxic Leadership, each year there would be a mandatory review of every leader responsible for more than twenty soldiers/sergeants/officers by his or her subordinates. The review would offer a choice - Toxic: yes or no? If more than 50% of the respondents identified the leader as "Toxic," he or she would be barred from promotion and further areas of responsibility (though not necessarily barred from employment. There are plenty of posts where a single officer or sergeant could do limited harm and even some good). Most leaders who were disliked personally for one reason or another that I encountered were not "Toxic," and I would not have designated them as so. I did meet two "Toxic Leaders" in the Army, and along with 50% (or even 70%) of my fellow officers would have gladly and eagerly given that response to anyone willing to listen. Of course, nobody asked us.

Mr. Kane should do more to emphasize the role of dialogue in brainstorming good solutions to the problems, and not give the impression that he's figured out the best way to fix the problem - because there are a lot of issues with his proposals (as I'm sure there are with mine). It should be a call to action, and not a platform for changes that would probably do much good in the Air Force and Navy, but not as much as his research says in the Army and Marines. 

dorianblack1
dorianblack1

Perfect view of a civi. Thats right permit a commander to hand pick all his subordinates. Do you know why we dont do this, so we dont have rouge commanders. Yeah it seems unlikely in the American army but the reason we have better strength in the field is because of an iron grip on who runs the military. Trust issues are because there is an extremely porous ability for infiltration. Once you leave for the private sector what you are saying is money is more important than duty.

WHY ON EARTH WOULD THE MILITARY LET YOU BACK IN?

Its hard enough dealing with the sub contracting to private comps for ops. The one rule is that if you leave the service you are saying your loyalty and duty is only as dedicated as a paycheck.

The evaluation thing is worth looking at but the first two decisions are a civilian oversimplifying and misunderstanding what the military is. Its nice from the insulated sense Americans have about their military but the real truth is this is life and death and our stability in system regards on averting things like infiltration and an inequity in control of weapons and personnel. 

There are entrenched officers and bad officers but the system eventually erodes them into irrelevance till their a fat shit managing a nothing department. And from a fiscal standpoint you might want to deal with that, but ultimately the difference between us and every other nation is that no matter who the president is, when the big eagle calls upon the troops its their authority that is acted on and not a general or Col bird playing Caesar. 

Again you might think that concern isnt relevant nowadays but thats because of the system. And ultimately retention in the military can only be achieved by dedication and loyalty incentivizing that is opposite the intent. There are things that need tons of work, structurally and such but with the exception of reforming the evaluation systems is a childish unrealistic and impracticable   

Marsco
Marsco

The art of delegation and allowing subordinates to learn from making mistakes is gone. Situations that were once handled at a low level are raised to General Officer levels. Lack of trust from many levels.

JohnArcher
JohnArcher

Here in New Zealand most of Mark Thompson's proposals have been in place in the Army for years. Personnel move easily between the regular force, other British forces, the weekend territorials, other NZ forces, civilian life and back again as their life circumstances take them. There are still a few drones (as in a beehive, not as in Afghanistan) but all those who are there want to be there, so they make for more coherent and professional teamwork, and those who come back in after time outside the army bring many useful civilian skills .

CPTWho
CPTWho

(wow: two dismal sciences in a single scholar!)


Was this comment supposed to stay in the article?

swb502
swb502

Part of me wants to embrace this but I'm afraid it would really hyper exaggerate the very issues its trying to solve. Toxic leaders are a huge issue but you can wait them out and in 2 years they are gone, what we would do if those potions become never changing? Empire building is already a huge problem if we had people who could stay some where forever how would we enact change? I can only imagine it would become like some many GS positions where someone has been there for 20 years and refuses to do anything differently. Group think already runs rampant in commands, if a commander can pick his own people and drag them around like a football coaching team I fear even great academic paralysis. Also a big part of the moving around was to make sure no unit could ever go rouge either. You really don't want a unit that is in complete control of its own combat power, just in case shit hits the fan. I guess you would need some sort of super IG, or bring back something like the old Commissars/political officers to keep an eye on everything. 

Everyone in the military has had the experience at some point be it with TMO or whoever, where the people in the office have been there for 20 years and everything is just the 'way it is'. I also fear a system that weighted what subordinates thought too much would quickly hold a commander hostage to his troops, forcing even greater direction from a central command on minimum man days, hours, etc. 

The biggest issues is that the outside world has a bottom line (money and competition) that keeps everyone honest, the military lack a 'bottle line' in the vast majority of areas. Its not like we have multiple Air Force's and we can shift to one or the other if we think one is under performing. Honestly to make this work it seems like you would need a while bunch of Private Military Firms you could go between. I think this invites far more problems then it fixes. 

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

Hey, what's the top US military leader up to right now? from FP:

Panetta is now at "The Ship & Shovell" pub in London with staff. He'll head to a meeting with several members of Parliament later today. He drank Tangle Foot ale at the pub, we're told. 

It all fits.

chrisnorton37
chrisnorton37

A lot of what Tim writes resonates with me as a Reserve Officer; much of what he's proposing for the Active Component mirrors more or less what my career has been to date. I have been fortunate over my years to have been able to seek out and interview for pretty much every assignment I have had, and most of them were great developmental opportunities or otherwise fit what I was looking for.

So far, it's worked well for me.

Not formally researching it, I'd say most of my peers have had the same opportunities as I, but cannot comment on whether or not they took advantage of them. From what I see, it's informally part of the institution to allow us to seek out and get those assignments, even for the slatings with centralized boards. 

It all comes down to the concept of managing your own career, and I've had a lot of latitude to do so. I suspect it's a function of a few variables...my year group, my geographic location, as well as my military occupation. For years the USAR was under strength in my YG (lots of options for me to choose from as a result). Additionally, I have the benefit of several major commands in the close vicinity, or within a few hours' drive. And since the RC is configured in a manner where it's Loggie Heavy, it has been a good mix for me.

Now if I entered the service a few years to the right/left, lived somewhere else, and was the Tanker I wanted to be, then my reality could be very different.

pcandreva
pcandreva

The headline has it all wrong.  In the quest to create the ideal leader, the U.S. military -- all branches -- have neglected to teach their officer corps basic management skills.  There is a presumption that a good leader is a de facto good manager. That's nonsense. 

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

I hesitate to say too much because I've been out so long, but this is definitely a well-based set of recommendation with many good features. From what I've read the top-down, promote incompetence, kiss-ass conditions present when I was in, still prevail, which is why good people leave in favor of a more realistic job environment based on achievement.  I don't like grading on a curve, though. It ain't right. There needs to be measurement against specific performance criteria, instead.

I's also do away with many of the archaic rank and grade levels. With new technology, better communications and smarter people the military should go to a flatter organizational structure as corporations have done.  A dozen enlisted ranks and another dozen officer grades? It's so 19th century.  Also French. It inhibits young people to see all those useless layers above them.  But then I'm a radical thinker.

CPTWho
CPTWho

"The one rule is that if you leave the service you are saying your loyalty and duty is only as dedicated as a paycheck"

That's the most ridiculous and conceited thing I've ever heard.  There are myriad reasons for getting out,many of which have nothing to do with money.  More to the point, if leaving the service for a better paying job says that the paycheck is the most important thing, what does leaving a better paying job to go back to the service say?  I'd rather serve with somebody who left a good paying job in a time of crisis than most ticket punchers and retirement seekers.

CPTWho
CPTWho

This.  Zero tolerance policies are in place everywhere, and those kinds of policies mean that people are either terrified of making mistakes or they will go to great lengths to cover up their mistakes, and therefore learn nothing.

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

@CPTWhoEconomics has long been the "dismal science" and now military personnel policy is too, apparently.  I certainly thought so when on my first overseas assignment I learned that I was detailed to the infantry.

retrophoebia
retrophoebia

@swb502 So what happens in a market setting (e.g., a business) if there's a "toxic leader" or one who's ineffective? 

CPTWho
CPTWho

@Don_Bacon Panetta is outranked by a more senior US military leader.

Sailor8707
Sailor8707

@CPTWho  I retired due to HYT. I refused to kiss ass. I would have served until I died. Heart doesn't mean what it used to...

dorianblack1
dorianblack1

@CPTWho Yes there are countless reasons people leave the military but the institutional attitude is as I stated before and that is dogma in the services. Even if its conceited it is truth. 

Second as I stated coming back from the private sector creates a severe trust issue on the part of the military. And they have every reason to be suspicious. 

Just b/c it isnt nice or to a civi logical doesnt change the prevailing actual mentality. 

dorianblack1
dorianblack1

@CPTWho Yes there are countless reasons people leave the military but the institutional attitude is as I stated before and that is dogma in the services. Even if its conceited it is truth. 

Second as I stated coming back from the private sector creates a severe trust issue on the part of the military. And they have every reason to be suspicious. 

Just b/c it isnt nice or to a civi logical doesn't change the prevailing actual mentality. 

CPTWho
CPTWho

@Don_Bacon @CPTWho Although that might be true, as a PA officer and journalist, that line looks like it was commentary between the writer and editor that was left in the article by mistake.

swb502
swb502

@retrophoebia @swb502  They lose money and the company folds. In day to day training its just about impossible to tell if things are going right since there is no output. And if you measures there results in war, either a bunch of people will dei needlessly, or the enemy just beat them. I don't know how you really measure anything without an output. 

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

@CPTWho@Don_BaconNo he isn't. The Secretary of Defense is the principal defense policy advisor to the President. Under the direction of the President, the Secretary exercises authority, direction, and control over the Department of Defense. . .Today, the Department, headed by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, is not only in charge of the military, but it also employs a civilian force of thousands. With over 1.4 million men and women on active duty, and 718,000 civilian personnel, we are the nation's largest employer. http://www.defense.gov/about/

Goldwater-Nichols streamlined the military chain of command, which now runs from the President through the Secretary of Defense directly to unified combatant commanders (CCDRs), bypassing the service chiefs.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goldwater%E2%80%93Nichols_Act

CPTWho
CPTWho

Probably.  It might be funny, but it tells me right off the bat how little he thinks of the person or topic he's writing about.

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

@CPTWho @Don_Bacon I know you think that, but writing a blog (as MT is doing) is not traditional journalism, and so one can toss stuff out there just 'cuz one feels like it. I think that's what it was. A throwaway line, if you will. Or an attempt at humor.

CPTWho
CPTWho

@Don_Bacon @CPTWho Yes he is, you said it yourself: 

The Secretary of Defense is the principal defense policy advisor to the President.  

The President is the top military leader.

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