The Army’s Leadership Problem

Tim Kane continues his campaign against the US military's antiquated personnel system.

US Army Officers

In “How to lose great leaders? Ask the Army,” Tim Kane continues his campaign against the US military’s antiquated personnel system. He notes that we lose too many of our best officers and that we could retain many of them if we changed the way we manage their careers.

 In truth, military officers are only volunteers for one day: the day they sign up. Afterwards, they’re treated with the same kind of inflexible, coercive management that has defined militaries since history began. No electronic “job boards” list openings for the thousands of available jobs in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. No junior officers know where their next job assignment will be, or if it will fit with their interests, strengths and talents. And no commanders are trusted to directly hire the subordinates they feel their teams need.

Rather, junior officers are generally limited to rank-ordering the base locations they prefer. Commanders are limited to making a “by-name request” of some officers, but this is more often than not ignored by higher-ups. Labor supply is coordinated with labor demand by large bureaucracies that haven’t changed much since Harry Truman was president in the 1950s.

Why does this nonsensical and anachronistic approach persist? The mantra from the central planners in the bowels of the Pentagon has always been that the “needs of the military come first.” That’s dumb. Smart organizations in the private sector have learned that putting employees’ needs first—ahead of corporate ones—only seems unproductive to short-term thinkers. Just look at the way Silicon Valley companies pamper their talent because of how it helps to maximize the bottom line. Compulsion just won’t work in today’s labor market.


To create a “total volunteer force,” I believe the Pentagon needs to radically reform. That will mean giving commanders, rather than bureaucrats, hiring authority. It will require the Pentagon to establish a job board which allows qualified officers and enlistees the freedom to apply for any open position. And it will mean instituting substantive evaluations that recognize merit more than seniority.

Finally, there should be no more “force shaping” with incentives paid to soldiers who retire early. Rather, there should be a free market that lets officers leave if they cannot find a military billet and allows former officers to return to the ranks if a commander will hire them.

What’s interesting is that Kane is describing a system that the military has been using for decades, with reasonable success, for managing its civilian employees. While there’s too much cronyism and inbreeding in the system, DoD civilians have much greater flexibility than their uniformed counterparts. They can advance their careers by volunteering for assignments in places few want to go. They can homestead in the DC area, establishing roots in a community, while moving from job to job. And they can rapidly advance up the ranks if they’ve got the talent, work ethic, and connections.

In some of his earlier work on this issue (see “Why America’s Best Officers Are Leaving“) Kane used the example of my former classmate, John Nagl, a star officer who got out at 20 years for life in the private sector rather than stay in and put on a general’s stars. Despite graduating at the top of his West Point class, earning a Rhodes Scholarship and a PhD, being the principal author of the Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, and success leading men in two combat tours, he was at exactly the same rank as the most mediocre officers of his cohort and facing the prospect of uprooting his family yet again to wherever the Army told him to go. He instead became a senior fellow and soon president of the Center for a New American Security, an influential think tank, and served on presidential advisory boards.  Peter Munson, a Marine major who’s leaving after sixteen years—four short of retirement eligibility!—documents the same frustrations (see “Military’s Lock-Step Promotion System“).

No matter how good an officer is, he has to wait his turn. It’s possible to get selected one year “below the zone” for major and lieutenant colonel, but that still means spending 16 years in uniform before reaching middle management ranks. The 1988 year group that John and I were part of is just now seeing its first people pinning on the single star of a brigadier general—25 years into their careers.

By contrast, two of my Atlantic Council colleagues were general officer equivalents (members of the Senior Executive Service) in their early 30s, less than a decade into their careers. and advising presidents and cabinet secretaries by 40. To be sure, they’re extreme outliers, not the norm. Both had Ivy League masters degrees, a tireless work ethic, deep mastery of their subject matter, and outstanding interpersonal skills.  But the point is that it’s possible for superstars to rise very quickly everywhere in the government but the uniformed services, where a strict seniority system operates until roughly the quarter century mark. (One can rise from one-star to four-star rank more rapidly than from captain to major.)

While the system works pretty well for the civil service, I’m not sure it translates perfectly into managing officers.

For one thing, there are boxes that officers need to check and all of them take time.  A combat arms officer in the Army, for example, needs to lead a platoon, command a company, serve some staff time, command a battalion, and command a brigade before he’s ready for promotion to the general officer ranks. Even if he just served 18 months in each billet, that’s 7-1/2 years. Additionally, while we may have gone overboard with professional military education, there’s the need to complete the branch-specific basic and advanced courses, command and staff college, and the war college. That’s roughly 4-1/2 years, bringing us to 12 years if everything falls into place perfectly. Add in another few years if you also want the officer to be competent in a functional area (e.g., Logistics, Operations, or Foreign Area Officer) outside their basic branch.   I don’t see any way of short-cutting that and produce effective general officers.

Beyond that, I worry about cronyism and path determinacy. Officers who come from large commissioning sources—the service academies and large land grant institutions—would have a huge advantage in finding their first job over peers from small schools. And they may never recover from that, since those who got the plum assignments in the 82nd Airborne Division and other large, prestige units would start their careers with a better crop of mentors who could bring them along with them. To be sure, some of that happens now. But the centralized nature of the promotion system gives a more-or-less equal chance to young officers based on their class ranking and other more-or-less objective measures.

Despite some trepidation, however, substantial movement in the direction Kane recommends simply makes sense. Our culture has changed radically and the best young leaders simply aren’t as amenable to giving up total control of their lives to their employers as they were decades ago. Nor, incidentally, is that a bad thing for the military; the nature of modern warfare is such that it no longer rewards following orders above all else. Furthermore, the nature of military families have changed. It’s been more than a generation now since officers could expect their wives to dutifully pack up every two to three years and set up camp somewhere new. Not only are an increasing number of military spouses men, but most male officers now marry college educated women who expect to have careers of their own. It’s simply unreasonable to expect spouses to put up with constant disruption of their own careers to serve “the needs of the Army.”

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Best of OTB, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. scott says:

    I think every serviceman has their own criteria WRT to promotion and assignments. Not unusual and pretty much just like civilians. Some lead to an ambitious career paths, others not. I was on one path when young and single and pretty much did a 180 when married and a father. At that point it was the job but the location.

    I remember working with Canadian exchange officers and talking about their system. It seemed as though they didn’t get promoted until a job opened up that supported that grade. In that system, rank and position were linked.

  2. Tony W says:

    I so appreciate this sentiment, as the father of two military kids who are uprooted every year or three. One quibble

    While the system works pretty well for the civil service,

    – I think I have to disagree here, the public sector is rife with the same sort of seniority-focused attitudes that hobble the military. I personally spent years in a public sector job waiting for my boss to die or move on before moving to a private company where I have quickly moved up the ranks and grown my skills and contributions to the organization. That was not going to happen in government service.

    I am fond of saying that in government you get responsibilities by doing a good job. You get money by hanging around. The two are completely disconnected.

  3. JKB says:

    Just what we need, the Army run by technocrats who find the field all icky and noisy. And that is what such a system would degrade to. That is what we have got a lot of now. Just read Dakota Meyer’s account of the action where he won his medal. Or remember all those colonels who were relieved for analysis paralysis during the Iraq invasion.

    And quite frankly, there are crappy jobs in the Army that need doing and they benefit from the occasional “star” getting the assignment to get them done. Then weak units that had languished get turned around and the “star” gets valuable leader experience. Perhaps risky but then the best leaders are risk takers.

    We should also remember that the Army has actual serious work to accomplish and their system is set up that no one person is the linchpin. In war, people die and it is critical that everyone has cross training. Robert McNamara assembled an elite group of brainiacs to run the military. How’d that work out for those who had to do the actual work of the Army, Marines?

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Tony W: Unless you’re in a very narrow career field, though, you can always apply for an opening elsewhere. There are hundreds of new openings posted every day.

  5. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Tony W: My personal experience working for a state government is more aligned with James’s description. While individual departments tend to be fairly static, there is always room to advance through taking a new job, either in a different department or in a different agency. A number of my coworkers have worked for multiple agencies within the State.

  6. Tony W says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: Indeed that may have been my core problem – too narrow a career field. Had I been a lawyer, for example, opportunities abound. Nevertheless, in the private sector I find many more growth opportunities that are tangential to my original discipline.

  7. Pharoah Narim says:

    Part of the problem is that we’ve drank the kool-aid that the private sector should be the model for everything. It isn’t. The military doesn’t sell stuff–it breaks things and kills people. As a result a premium has been set on managment skills rather than real leadership. There is a difference. Troops got rewarded for dodging deployments and getting degrees/schools under their belts while the guys that got tapped to deploy were penalized by eval boards for not having degrees/school like that deployment dodgers. The only thing that needs tweaking are the metrics we use for evaluation. Saving money, performance in schools, etc are heavily weighted whereas problem solving and leadership skills aren’t much listed in evaluations. Even with the current system however, its pretty easy to see how most guys/gals became GOs–they all pretty sharp. A few slackers get through due to connections but most GOs are the best of the best in their specialty.

  8. In the old Soviet army (and presumably still in the Russian army) rank was practically irrelevant. Duty assignment was everything. Former Soviet tank commander Viktor Suvorov, later an operative in the GRU, explained this in some detail in his early 1980s book, Inside the Soviet Army. In the Soviet army, rank followed rather than preceded responsibilities and performance. Talented officers got to move up without waiting for the calendar to go by so many months or years of “time in grade.”

    Interestingly, the only place in my military career I encountered this mind set was in the Pentagon, where there was pretty much no consideration given to task assignments based on rank, generals’ assignments being the exception, of course. But otherwise directors assigned tasks based on competence, not rank, and it was quite routine to find a working group with captains, majors and lieutenant colonels (and sometimes colonels) working as equals.

  9. @JKB:

    Interesting to recall that as a Lt. Col., G.C. Marshall was given a “kiss of death” tour, as regular Army advisor to a state National Guard (Wisconsin, IIRC). Everyone in that day understood that was the Army’s way of telling you to burnish your resume.

    But Marshall, being Marshall, performed so well that the Army promoted him instead. And the rest, as they say, is history.

    But that mindset was still true 80 years later. When I was on the Army staff, the unreadiness of National Guard combat units became a matter of concern after the Gulf War. (Support units did great, combat units proved not even ready to deploy,. much less fight.) So I was, among many others, assigned to a task force in the building to address the problem.

    Army chief of staff Gen. Carl Vuono sent a letter to the deputy chief of staff for personnel that henceforth, only “top half” rated regular officers would be assigned to National Guard advisory duties and that the regular officer corps needed to be informed that N.G. advisor duty should be seen as a career-enhancing assignment.

    So I privately asked my counterpart of the personnel office how many times had the Chief sent a letter telling them to assign “bottom half” officers to certain assignments and let the corps know that those assignments were less than optimal.

    He furrowed his brow for a moment then got the point of my question and burst out laughing.

  10. superdestroyer says:

    The issues of spouses is one that the military tries hard to ignore. General officers generaly have supportive stay at home wives who have support their careers for thirty years or more. They have zero sympathy for junior officers who are married to college educated professionals and have zero desire to live in Killeen Texas or Fayetteville, North Carolina.

    It seems like some more junior officers want to reoganize the military so that they can spend all of their career in DC working in high profile assigns and great civilian jobs once they get out and leave the hard work at the big installations in fly over country to someone else.

  11. superdestroyer says:

    @Donald Sensing:

    I found it odd when “career managers” were telling junior officers to go for “the hard assignments” because it would allow them to shine when those “career managers” really meant that officers should go for high profile assignments. In reality, high profile assignments are generally easier because they were fully resourced and one’s coworkers are people who want to be in high profile assignments.

    The last thing that would help any officer is taking a hard assignment where there were limited resources, disgruntled subordinates, and little interest from leadership.

  12. Kolohe says:

    As a navy person I’ll be the first to tell you that the Army is broken 🙂

    (but seriously, after working under an Army command in Afg, there is some serious cultural differences between Navy and Army leadership, one’s that I can’t figure out to this day if it was a difference in styles or something more seriously wrong with how the army does things)

    In my experience there is, at the junior level, a great deal of input that officers have with their job choices – on short duty.

    Which in turn may be where the Navy is different from the Army – an unrestricted line officer knows going in exactly what his or her career path will be, and, if they stay in after their college payback tour is done, that the end goal of that career path is Command At Sea. Navy officers completing their first tour are given specific advice that if command at sea *isn’t* your personal goal, you should think long and hard on why you want to stay in.

    (there also may be another difference here than the army, the Navy only counts on 35-40% of officers to stay in after their first tour).

    “That will mean giving commanders, rather than bureaucrats, hiring authority.”

    This is most provocative of Kane’s suggestions, but one I feel has the least practical chance of coming to fruition. Certainly for some jobs (e.g. flag aide) there is an interview and hiring process dictated by the individual command, but I’m not sure if we should really spend the time and resources required to give Commanding Officers hiring authority (vice just firing authority as it is now). Keeping a talent balance across units is a useful end.

    One thing I would like to see pushed down more is budget authority; all officers need to make personnel decisions on some level, but an officer can get to a pretty high place without ever having to make a substantial decisions on how to spend large amounts money and set priorities within a hard monetary ceiling.

  13. I’m actually leaving at 16 years. Which has brought a number of people to say that I am crazy. But the vast majority of my peers would like to do the same thing and are counting the days until they can be done with their time. It isn’t so much that people feel entitled to earlier promotions, but if the military is going to keep weak and toxic leadership around, the younger crowd would like the chance to compete against them and maybe short-circuit the pain we too often feel.