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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  • Ashish

    A bold article that treats the subject with the due attention it deserves. Too many warning signals glaring out of it, hope the powers that be don’t get blinded, but would see through it. Well Done, Lieutenant Commander WT Door.

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  • http://disruptivethinkers.org Ben Kohlmann

    Great article. Just wish more Junior leaders would be willing to put their name to controversial pieces when the espouse something constructively critical of the establishment. There certainly may be career implications — but it helps identify the outside-the-box thinkers other organizations look to recruit, develop and rapidly promote…

    • K.S.

      The fact that this officer feels unable to identify himself speaks volumes towards the ‘stifling environment’ in which he speaks of. Constructive criticism, or at least a culture of empowerment to do so, is a necessity within any healthy organization be it civilian or otherwise.

  • The Usual Suspect

    It seems as if the most disheartening thing is that those starting at the O-6 level and above have become politicians and have turned their backs on the troops to garner stars. Look at the last two retired CNO’s. After their quest for more stars it is on to the corporate boardroom. What happened to honor, courage, and commitment? It seems that those three things go out the window once you make admiral. They give up their honor and lack the courage to speak up when things are wrong. The only commitment is to their next star and securing a job at a defense contractor.

    • Critical Reader

      This is new? Look at how many Flag’s went on to corporate/gov jobs post WW2.
      How about GEN MacArthur and quest to be King of Philippines?
      Don’t whine about senior leaders without understanding the strategic mindset they work in, daily.
      Go read some history books too.

  • Limey

    The age old conundrum of how to overcome institutionalization. Armed forces (and police forces) the world over suffer from this.

    In contrast, industry benefits from cross-fertilization between organizations at every level, including the upper echelons. Being an Admiral or a General is 80% being a CEO and less than 20% being an experienced war fighter.

    So long as the military are happy to live in their stovepipes we should expect more of the same spectaculars.

  • Peter Belkin

    Having served both in the Navy and now working in the private sector what stands out is that we do not live in anything resembling a meritocracy.

  • Ex-SWO

    I have been working with surface warfare officers for many years, from 0-1 on up. The running joke among junior officers is that once you get into department head school (O-3) the first thing they do is send you into surgery where they remove your heart and your spine, and finally vaccuum out your soul. I’ve definitely seen some great officers over the years, and they deserve our respect. But the really good ones tend to thin out quickly with increased rank. Unfortunately, most successful senior officers are better at backroom politics and self-promotion than leadership and innovative thinking.

  • GJO

    I think we have to figure out what we want of our military leaders before we decide how best to cultivate/promote them. To me it depends: I want a JO who is good in the plane (and with paperwork on the ground), a CO who knows when to put the mission or people first and an Admiral who can get me funding. There are some good JOs out there but I haven’t found one yet who I would trust as a CO of a squadron at this point in their lives (myself included).

    I think JOs (and any newblood in an organization) can revitalize the profession. Senior leaders should look to these individuals for ideas as it is easy to forget what you thought was a great idea as a JO by the time you make O-6. However, the senior leader (with their experience and perspective) should be the one to vett the ideas that imply a broad organizational change. As a capable and thoughtful DivO, would you let your Chief have the ultimate say about division policy? Nope, but I certainly rely on his input and experience to be a good DivO.

    Couple of other opinions:
    “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.”

    Not true. The worst get adverse FITREPs and dont promote. The best get tough jobs and better chances of promoting to O-4 and selection to department head.

    “The same process occurs through the mid-grade field officers, where still upwards of 80% are promoted to O-5.”

    80% make O-5 but many don’t get assigned billets with the same level of influence as the top performers. Not about the money right.

    “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.”

    If they are only suited to mid-grade leadership positions then why keep them. All those new JOs coming in from prestigious universities with lots of thoughts on how to improve the system should have a crack at that billet. Otherwise they might get frustrated with the lack of leadership opportunities and decide to go to Google or Apple.

    “Change is often made to highlight a bullet on a performance report for an officer desperately seeking promotion, not to improve the organization.”

    Degradation of command effectiveness certainly happens but I have a hard time believing it is willful. Usually someone with a “good idea” that doesn’t pan out…can happen to JOs with a “good idea” too.

  • http://www.vol-training.com David McCuistion

    Seems to me Mr. Water Tight Door is one of many disgrungled officers who couldn’t make the grade due to mediocure performance, so he/she blasts the system.

    He provides no proof about the system and its problems. In my 30 year naval career, the evaluation system was changed and improved several times to insure the top-performers were rewarded for exceptional work. While there may be a few exceptions, those non-performers get weeded-out eventually.

    As one progresses upward, the bad apples are removed and top-notch are rewarded with promotions. The upper-level ranks become more difficult to achieve because of the close scrutnity of evaluations and the best do get promoted.

    While there has been a breakdown in ethics over the years, and this year seems a particularly bad year, the military is still bless with many hard-charging top-notch leaders. To many media reports show otherwise.

    Yesterday, Jesse Jackson Jr. admitted to stealing three-quarters of a million of dollars from donars who thought him worthy of their assistance. His lawyer had the gall to say he’ll be back because he is a great man. Seems he fell by the wayside just like his Dad who exhibited unethical behaviors.

    The civilian community is filled with cases of unethical behaviors, which is far greater in number than the military.

    I am fortunate to have been blessed with many friends of Flag and senior officer rank with whom I had many conversations about leadership – in and out of the military. The comment I most hear is about the lack of leadership and decision making leaders in the civilian community. I also saw this in my twenty years of employment after my military career.

  • USCGJO

    The only thing I think this article missed is a JO seeing unqualified enlisted members rising through the ranks. I had an experience seeing a terrible Chief make the cut for Warrant Officer. How did the senior leadership in my command recommend this chief, who was widely known to be terrible at his job, for warrant officer? Again- politics. They were trying to play a game of not upsetting the Chiefs mess, while giving average marks for a Chief, which they thought would be good enough for the Chief to not get picked up for warrant. Why can’t we be honest on evaluations and rate people exactly how they perform, instead of being scared of “upsetting” a Chiefs mess? As soon as this Chief made the cut for warrant, I as a JO completely lost motivation and respect for the military organization and for my leadership command. While I understand that politics happen in the civillian community as well, I am eargerly looking forward to getting out of the military and finding a company that does evaluations correctly and does not promote unqualified candidates.

  • USCG 0-2

    As a Junior Officer in the Coast Guard with many peers in the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, I identify whole-heartedly with this article. It appears that many who have responded to this article are senior and as such – very removed from the JO Nation that this article alludes to. As an Academy graduate from 2011, I entered the fleet with ideals and a rigorous work ethic that I believed would help a service struggling with a decreased budget, increased demand, and lower enlistment. What I found was that innovation was scoffed at, ingenuity unrewarded, and those bold enough to decry the ‘system’ and its oftentimes inane bureaucratic methods penalized unjustly. I have seen 0-6’s behave unethically, I have seen senior leadership turn a blind eye, I have offered solutions to problems and informed with resignation, “…that is the way it is done here.” How then are we JO’s to stay motivated? I graduated in the top 1% of my class, I have received prestigious scholarships (which my service will NOT allow me to utilize), and I have received job offers from private corporations offering to pay more than 4X what I make now. Why do I stay in? I stay in because this country demands more from our leaders than what we have. The citizens of this nation have chosen a Professional Armed Forces capable of meeting the dynamic challenges that our so-called-leaders have unabashedly led us to. We are the youth, jaded by our parents generation that have managed to complete what our enemies have tried for almost 250 years – destroying our economic, political, and social foundation. What happened to honor, to courage, and commitment? I fail to see it everywhere around me except in my peers – who struggle to maintain it instead of selling out to the corporate world of money, fame, and comfort. I have not yet given up the fight but it is becoming increasingly hard to do so. To our senior leaders, read this. Remove yourself from your isolated towers and initiate change so long overdue.

    Very Respectfully,
    0-2 USCG

  • CAPT Brett Korade

    Some very lucid and provoking, if subjective, points. Some other thoughts to round out the emotion and offer some perspective.
    – The civilian world held in such esteem in the article above has more personal misconduct failures than the military ranks, it is simply not punished.
    – the overall DFCs of COs in the Navy is less than 1%, which according to the article above would indicate a 99% success rate is not adequate
    – the Navy is in the midst of standing up a leadership continuum in an attempt to address some of the cultural issues mentioned above
    – change is best effected from inside and can not be well impacted with anonymity.

    While I appreciate the position LCDR Door believes he is in, the best approach toward change is to air grievances with character and integrity, which means accepting the associated risks as well. Sadly, like it or not, the above article becomes nothing more than a JOPA rant issued by an unknown back row rock thrower when it has the potential to actually support the changes beginning to appear. I think this is an strategic opportunity to be seized.

    I heartily encourage LCDR Door to republish under his own name. Trust me – you are not saying anything that will cause senior leaders to condemn, rather I think you would be surprised to see the concurrence if not outright support your position would garner. The winds of change are blowing, and the more people that display the courage to raise their sails to ride these choppy waters the better our service will become in the future. Courage takes many forms, and the least of those is accepting mortal risks.

  • Former 1810

    Bravo, LCDR Door, thank you for telling it like it is. On behalf of myself and a few other brothers, I will offer that I was one of the casualties of the bureaucratic minefield that is the personnel system, (and the downturned economic environment to boot). In my case, the type of youthful idealism you describe led to a “velvet knife” in my back. A subtle yet deliberate average mark here, or an admin error there, and – careers are torpedoed.

    Therefore, to your “revolutionize the establishment” section, I would add that “stack ranking” and “up-or-out” need to end: It is astonishing and appalling that the board’s decision for laurels or the guillotine takes place in under a minute. Block 41 needs to be reworded to be honest. “Must promote” today can mean you have failed in the eyes of the board reviewing your “metrics” (what a word). We don’t follow the plain meaning principle; terms should be changed where they mean “caution, career trajectory terminal” or “this is just a goodbye kiss”.

    The narrative account (block 42) of one’s accomplishments that O1s-O3s sweat so much over isn’t even read. Where JOs were once devoted to the cause and team-oriented, there is now that very apparent glint of jockeying for position. It is shameful. It HURTS to see the guy upthread dismiss you as “disgrungled” and/or “mediocre”, your writing suggests that is not the case. The reality is there is always someone coming in from on high who will never get it, who reminds us that he was a fortunate beneficiary (and does a little ADM name-dropping to reinforce his superiority).

    There is recovery though, for any who gave and have been hurt. And some of us never quit giving our best, despite the writing on the wall. “Pressing ever onward, and forgetting what is behind…” (Philippians 3:13-14)

    Additional reading on stack racking and up-or- out:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/frederickallen/2012/07/03/the-terrible-management-technique-that-cost-microsoft-its-creativity/

    http://www.g2mil.com/let.htm

  • Former IW officer

    Bravo, LCDR Door, thank you for telling it like it is. On behalf of myself and a few other brothers, I will offer that some of us were casualties of the minefield that is the personnel system, (and the downturned economic environment to boot). I want to address what is being called the “air gap”, just one more to throw on the pile of problems you note in your section on the overwhelming bureaucracy. In my case, the type of youthful idealism you describe led to a velvet knife – found sticking out of my back. A subtle yet deliberate average mark here, or an sloppy admin error there (the boss didn’t have time to review), and – careers are torpedoed.

    Therefore, to your “revolutionize the establishment” section, I would add that “stack ranking” and “up-or-out” need to end: It is astonishing and appalling that the board’s decision for laurels or the guillotine takes place in under a minute. Block 41 needs to be reworded to be honest. “Must promote” today can mean you have failed in the eyes of the board reviewing your “metrics” (what a word).

    We don’t follow the plain meaning principle; terms should be changed where they mean “caution, career trajectory terminal” or “this is just a goodbye kiss”. The FITREP system changed a few times in the 2000s and commanders didn’t quite get it. Therefore, in the niche jobs, it must be taught, flagged, screamed and semaphored that any JO receiving less than an “early promote” ranking is potentially being thrown under the bus, the language has lost its meaning just as much as marks under the grade creep of the ’90s.

    The narrative account (block 42) of one’s accomplishments that O1s-O3s sweat so much over isn’t even read by the board. Where JOs were once devoted to the cause and team-oriented, there is now that very apparent glint of jockeying for position. It is shameful. It HURTS to see the guy upthread dismiss you as “disgrungled” and/or “mediocre”, your writing suggests that is not the case. The reality is there is always someone coming in from on high who will never get it, who reminds us that he was a fortunate beneficiary (and does a little ADM name-dropping to reinforce his position of superiority).

    There is recovery though, for any who gave and have been hurt. And some of us never quit giving our best, despite the writing on the wall. “Pressing ever onward, and forgetting what is behind…” (Philippians 3:13-14)

    Additional reading on stack racking and up-or-out:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/frederickallen/2012/07/03/the-terrible-management-technique-that-cost-microsoft-its-creativity/

    http://www.g2mil.com/let.htm

  • Wayward Son

    In his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” Adam Smith says that one of the key reasons young men join the military is for the hope of glory, honor, and the adoration of a loving public. He also states that for every one person who attains these ojects, there are thousands upon thousands who do not. This is what leads to much disappointment–visions of glory dashed by harsh reality.

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