cno greenert us navy admiral

US Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert speaks to Sailors during an all hands call at Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ruben Reed/Released)

By LCDR W.T. Door

With the recent spate of firings and misbehaving at the upper echelons of the United States’ military leadership spectrum, senior leaders and defense analysts alike are speculating as to the cause. Was it just a few bad apples?  Does our senior leadership think they are above the law, or did they just make a coincidental string of bad decisions? Have we promoted the wrong people? Indeed, there is no panacea here, but the leadership crisis our military is facing can be tied to another alarming trend- the dissatisfaction and subsequent resignation of our brightest young leaders.

The lack of quality leadership permeates all levels of our military, though perhaps is most visible at the highest levels, where the firing of top commanders attracts the most attention. The US Navy reached an all-time high of 25 Commanding Officers fired in 2012. The other services have had similar problems, capped by the high profile firings of the head of Africa Command, General Ward, and the resignation of the CIA Director, retired General Petreaus, in a bizarre scandal that also ensnared the top leader in Afghanistan, General Allen. The Air Force has been rocked by sex scandals at its Lackland training command.

Since 2005, more than 255 commanders across the services have been fired for personal misconduct alone.

While the headlines expose shocking scandals and firings, the symptoms of poor leadership can be found elsewhere. The rash of suicides, sexual assaults and resignation of our most promising young leaders signify that this problem is endemic.

Collisions at sea, training command scandals and high profile ethical failures further offer proof that we must address this problem or risk the quality of our military at a time when we can least afford it. Indeed, these crises are not random outliers, but inextricably linked.  The US military is one that has been strained throughout a decade of intense operations, one filled with budget cuts and evolving strategic challenges.  With heightened tensions and stress levels, actions are magnified and true character and leadership abilities- or lack thereof- emerge.

So Much Potential

Senior leadership ranks within the US military are unfortunately a hazy reflection of the countless stellar young officers commissioned each year. The junior officer cadre is comprised of top graduates from prestigious schools, remarkable over-achievers, athletes, and proven leaders. These are individuals who would undoubtedly excel in the corporate world, but who instead chose to serve our great nation.

Idealistic, bright and innovative, these are the leaders the military needs as we enter an increasingly challenging strategic and fiscally-constrained era.  Yet that optimistic, creative and intelligent young officer is forced to navigate an often draconian and inflexible system- one that has succeeded in pushing out our best and instead retaining only those officers willing to slog through the bureaucratic minefield.

I would argue that very few join the military for the economic advantages it offers.

While the salary of an officer can be regarded as comfortable, it often pales in comparison to what talented counterparts with similar education and experience on the “outside” can make.  A fellow business school graduate of a top university- that the military also sends a handful of young officers to- will see enormously greater earnings potential, despite responsibilities which do not entail leading America’s talented young men and women into harm’s way.

Money is not the primary motivator for these leaders- they seek a challenge where they can make a difference. These motivated young leaders often report to their first command filled with idealistic objectives, determined to make an impact on their command and their troops. They want to lead- and to succeed.

Yet these bright young officers are quickly deflated, becoming dejected by the demanding environment that stifles innovation, instead rewarding those who adhere to established processes and “do their time.”

They find rank based on time in service, not competency or job performance.  Every O-1 will be promoted to O-2 at the exact time their entire year group pins on.  No exceptions are made for the best- or worst- of the bunch. The same process occurs through the mid-grade field officers, where still upwards of 80% are promoted to O-5.

Young officers with bright futures are often exasperated by this promotion system which rewards time over performance. Those recognizing the value of their talents elsewhere often count down the days until they can resign and apply their talents in a profession where competency is acknowledged and prized. The prospect of waiting 15 to 20 years to finally be promoted on merit is too disheartening for many to stick around- even before recognizing the politicized nature of senior level promotions.

A brave few will continue to remain in the military, still clinging to the idealistic belief that perhaps they can push through and make a difference.  And they do- those fortunate enough to serve under or with a talented leader reap the rewards and blossom.  Yet there are too few of these quality leaders, and the military is inundated with the average performer merely plugging away time until reaching retirement.

Instead of inspiring those around them to perform to their utmost potential, these leaders inspire mediocrity and strive to accomplish what merely needs to be done.

Their subordinates are neither challenged nor motivated to remain part of the organization which values aggregating “fiefdoms” in a struggle for power or stars in an increasingly unwieldy bureaucracy. Change is often made to highlight a bullet on a performance report for an officer desperately seeking promotion, not to improve the organization. “Soul-crushing” is an activity seemingly relished by many senior officers when dealing with their subordinates.

Leadership by example?

This unscrupulous leadership style creates a corrosive environment for junior leaders and enlisted alike.  Subordinates observe self-serving actions and believe them to be validated if made by a senior officer.  Behaviors adapt to reflect the degraded moral environment and morale diminishes, opening the door to a host of conduct troubles and neglect of those troops most in need.

The impact this type of leader has on those around them is immense- a gloomy outlook is contagious, people stop caring and instead perform at a minimum level to get by.  The bright young officer reporting aboard sees officers only a few years older whom are sullen, dismissive and pessimistic and it has the unfortunate effect to hasten the downfall of that very officer who wanted to make an impact, to make a difference and was so incredibly motivated and prepared to do so.

Troops are similarly affected- if the officers are not out leading from the front, inspiring others to be their very best, a tremendous burden is placed on our enlisted leadership to pick up the slack.  Given the many operational challenges our military faces as we defend national interests around the globe, this is often asking too much.

Without bright, motivated officers to set an example and be concerned about the well-being of their troops, the result is increased conduct violations, sexual assaults, and even suicides.  The suicide epidemic the military is currently facing can be tied to failures of leadership at every level to enforce a positive environment that values all troops, ensure a team-oriented approach, recognize those at risk, and intervene to prevent tragic loss. Leaders too concerned for their own career have little time to ensure their subordinates maximize their own potential and often miss signs of impending tragedy.

While people are indeed the military’s most valuable asset, the neglect goes beyond our troops.  Admiral Bill Gortney, US Fleet Forces Command, recently announced that ship and submarine mishaps in the past year have racked up an unplanned maintenance bill of more than $850 million- for mishaps involving only four ships and submarines. The entire fleet-wide mishap maintenance bill is projected to be much higher. Critical training and operational commitments went unfulfilled as a result of preventable errors. In this era of fiscal austerity, we simply cannot afford to entrust our ships, subs and aircraft to anything less than the best commanders.

pentagon washington, dc

Image by David B. Gleason

Overwhelming bureaucracy 

Even the bright young officer who is committed to making a difference will find it challenging to withstand the bureaucratic system. They will continuously be tested by a personnel system which fails to match talents and training with billets, fails to recognize potential and capabilities and assign them appropriately, fails to recognize the merits of keeping an officer in a position which they enjoy and can excel at- making a positive influence on those around them- and instead pushing them into positions far beyond their abilities or personal preferences in the futile attempt to craft every leader into a commanding officer, regardless of whether or not said leader has the desire or ability.

Personal preferences and skillsets are almost universally disregarded when the “needs of the service” demand a body- any body- be plugged into an open slot.

This bureaucracy can turn the most optimistic young leader into a jaded pessimist content with biding their time until the next opportunity to transfer, resign or retire. The impact this type of leader then has on those around them is immense- a gloomy outlook is contagious. People stop caring and instead perform at a minimum level to get by.  The eager young officer reporting aboard sees officers only a few years older whom are sullen, dismissive and pessimistic. The unfortunate result is the hastening of the downfall of that very officer who wanted to make an impact, to make a difference and was so incredibly motivated and prepared to do so.

Despite years of outcry, the personnel system continues to operate in mysterious ways, failing to match talent, capabilities and interests with billets.  We refuse to acknowledge that perhaps some officers are best suited to junior or mid-grade leadership positions and can have the greatest impact by remaining there. By continually trying to mold each officer into a CO, we instead end up with unfit commanding officers who have been pushed beyond their capabilities, interests or leadership abilities.  This, in turn, manifests in record high failures at the upper echelons, failures within the leadership chain, and failures to our troops in the most dire need.

Revolutionize the establishment

We must do better- we owe it to our troops and our nation.  Lack of exceptional leadership has permeated the ranks, causing increased conduct violations, sexual assaults and even suicides. Innovation has been stifled and mediocrity rewarded at a time when bold and creative approaches to our strategic and fiscal challenges are desperately needed.

This leadership crisis can and must be solved. We must start leading and caring for our nation’s most valuable military asset- its people. But the leadership crisis can not be fixed by resorting to traditional methods such as throwing bonuses at officers approaching critical points in their careers or mandating ridiculous hours of mindless training that becomes a race to see how quickly one can click through slides. Instead, our senior leadership must work hard to understand what truly motivates our best and brightest.

It isn’t money- if it was these leaders likely wouldn’t have joined in the first place.

What does motivate them is providing a challenging- but not stifling- environment in which they can grow, make an impact, make a difference. We must put an end to outdated bureaucracies that have churned through officers in the same manner since the inception of the Cold War and instead revolutionize our leadership organization.

Reward the most talented and dedicated officers by sending them to challenging billets that will spur further growth. Allow those officers who excel in a job and wish to stay longer to do so. Stop trying to make everyone follow a rigid path to command and value individual merits, letting them contribute more to the organization instead of forcing them into a position they neither desire nor excel at. Where you have a motivated and capable officer, you nearly always have subordinates who are also motivated and enabled to excel.

While it will not be easy to change an institution so steeped in tradition and bureaucracy, we must learn from our mistakes and recognize that the world has evolved.  If the military wishes to compete with top corporations such as Google or Apple, we must find a way to ensure our young leaders are allowed to succeed. We owe it to our junior ranks- and to our nation- to provide senior leadership that will take care of our troops and maximize the potential of all.  We must reshape the military bureaucracy to remove the stifling barriers that restrict the innovation and motivation of talented leaders. Unless we do so, we will continue to lose our best leaders, further degrading our military and continuing a painful spiral of tragic consequences. We simply cannot afford to do so any longer.

Written by LCDR W.T. Door, an anonymous active duty, US Naval Officer.

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