The Best and the Brightest – Again

There is one topic that rolls around on an inconsistent timetable but shows up periodically, always to question (if not to castigate) the Army’s retention and promotion policies. The authors frequently deplore the loss of the ”best and brightest” who have resigned or not reenlisted because promotions are not made ”on merit,” or coveted assignments are not available or are given to the unqualified or deserving. The ”brain drain” then assures both the remaining officer and NCO corps are less qualified, less competent and less representative of good leadership. Those revelations are always accompanied by glaring examples of generals, colonels, and perhaps sergeants major who are corrupt, sexual predators, demanding autocrats or have less-than-admirable reputations.

A year ago, The Washington Post published an article called ”How to lose great leaders? Ask the Army,” by Tim Kane. It reported that in the years following 9/11 terrorist attacks, the number of officers who served until retirement dropped from three-quarters to only two-thirds of the total cohort. I do not know the accuracy of that claim, but I am willing to accept it. (That decade also brought the first-ever loss of more than 50 percent of the West Point graduates who had reached the end of their obligatory service.) Kane contended that the problem is deep-rooted: ”The Army has bled talented for decades, a consequence of a deeply dysfunctional organization that poorly matches jobs with talent and doesn’t trust its officers to make choices about their own carriers.”

Recently, the Post published another article, ”Pentagon investigations point to military system that promotes abusive leaders,” by Craig Whitlock. This article identifies a ”profane…cruel and oppressive” Air Force general and a ”verbally abusive taskmaster” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cited for ”exhibiting paranoia’ and making officers cry.” A National Guard leader is described as a ”dictatorial,” ”unglued” and a master of ”profanity-fused outbursts.”

There are also ”an embarrassing number…. who have gotten into trouble for gambling, drinking and sleeping around.” These cases are ”symptomatic of a more damaging problem that promotes too many lousy leaders.”

There is no mention in these articles that almost all of those miscreants were identified by their peers or superiors and punished or eliminated by their services. Their numbers are a miniscule percentage of the thousands of leaders the Army has employed over those years. I have no patience for tolerance for those in leadership positions who act to destroy the trust that must be mutually established between leaders and their subordinates, and I have no intention of excusing the fact of their behavior. I am writing, however, to dispute the idea that we have deeply dysfunctional system of leader development and to question the allegation that we promoted too many lousy leaders. I believe that Army leaders compare more than favorably with any other profession. Studied as a whole, they demonstrate honesty, integrity, dedication and reliable capability. These traits put them high on any scale measuring their value.

I write these words in the first person because I was cited in Kane’s article as ”mock(ing) the issue” when I addressed a 2011 survey reporting the discontent of junior officers. Perhaps I can explain myself better this time. My purpose is to assure the officer corps and the NCO corps that, on the whole, they are well served by the assignment and promotion systems that govern their lives. There are mistakes made, improvements needed, undeserved rewards and bad assignments, but overall, all systems are honest, and designed to do right. There is periodic attention and effort to improve both. The continuing attempts to find a better efficiency report and assignments that accommodate family needs (or the disable and medically afflicted) are examples of evolving management.

When I was growing up in the Army, I enjoyed two quick wartime promotions, then spent a number of years awaiting the next two. It took another war and a ”below zone” to make that schedule. The system has to plan for five promotions in 30 years. After World War II, I filled out a preference statement and, along with about 90 percent of my peers, put Hawaii as first choice. I chose Germany as my second choice, went to night school to study the language and the Army sent me on four tours to the Far East before, 27 years later, I went to Germany.

I learned about leadership on the job. It was not a subject taught in our school system in those days, so observation of good and bad leadership was the primary instruction, along with a personal interest in military history and the great leaders of bygone eras.

Not everyone absorbed that experience, and some poor leaders received too many promotions. The principles of leadership, however, are now staples in the Army School System. As a result, I have to believe that the overall quality of leaders has to be better. Even with those waves of ”best and brightest” departures, Army leadership during the past century has been a good or better than any other profession.

The Army schools and U.S. Army training and Doctrine Command have the formal responsibility for educating and training leaders. The system sends enlisted soldiers through five levels of qualification: basic and advanced individual training, then basic and advanced NCO education, followed by the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy. There is additional schooling for specialties such as cooks and bakers, aviation and automotive mechanics, and a host of others. Officers, who start with a college education, go through basic and advanced career courses, command and staff schools, and a war college. Some are selected for advanced college degrees while others go through operations research, systems analysis, or force and installation management courses that augment the basic system. No other profession provides such a continuing intellectual challenge and development. Given my experience, no other profession exposes one to how much he or she did not know before attending each level of Army education.

There is no question that the loss of first-class leaders at the rates cited is a problem, but there are many other contributing factors. Who can blame for fail to understand the young captain who just returned from his third or fourth combat tour, then decided to resign? How many were threatened with divorce? How many never had time or opportunity to find a spouse? How many had, unfortunately, worked for those inadequate leaders? How many shouldn’t have been selected for West Point or an ROTC appointment in the first place?

Unquestionably, there are improvements to be made in any system. Army education courses were reduced in scope and time because of the demands of recent wartime operations. Restoration of longer, more comprehensive studies should be a high priority. Assignment policies might be modified to better accommodate individual preferences. The current over centralized promotion system might improve if current commanders’ and leaders assessments can be introduced. No one knows better than a second lieutenant platoon leader who should be selected to fill his next squad leader vacancy, maybe even his next platoon sergeant.

Commanders, more than anyone, recognized and suffer the workings of the Peter Principle. Undoubtedly, there are personnel management techniques and policies employed in private industry that are worth consideration.

Nevertheless, the Army system is not supposed to identify the next Grant, MacArthur, Marshall or Eisenhower, nor can it select the next Alvin York or Audie Murphy. It is designed to produce reasonable replicas, schooled as best we know how to take charge during the next military crisis. Who knew beforehand to train Gen. Maxwell Thurman for the Just Cause campaign, that Gen. H. Normal Schwarzkopf should be prepared for Desert Storm, or that Gen. David H. Petraeus would be needed for Iraq and Afghanistan? They were all trained and ready to step into leadership roles required for the crisis the nation faced.

The system has also produced and large number of great leaders who passed through careers and retired unknown because no crisis occurred on their watch. If Pearl Harbor had occurred a year later, Gen. George S. Patton Jr. would have been remembered as Col. Patton, a 1912 Olympic pentathlete.

There are no guarantees about an Army career except that it won’t make you a millionaire and that the Army will do its best to see that you are qualified to become a wartime hero. You will be part of a noble, historic profession and share a responsibility for maintaining its reputation. I would like to think that if you can’t live with that promise and the charge demanded by Army Values and the Soldier’s Code, you don’t belong anyway.

Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, USA Ret., formerly served as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and commander in chief of U.S. Army Europe. He is a senior fellow of AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare and 1st Vice President of the American Security Council Foundation.

Reprinted with permission from ARMY Magazine, Vol. 64 #4. The Association of the United States Army.

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