“It is meritocracy in action,” President George H.W. Bush said of the military in a speech at West Point two weeks before leaving office. A few years later, I was a junior in high school when I first saw that clip of the former president touting the military’s high regard for merit. I believed in that message, deeply, when I applied to and attended West Point.
In the years since, the lofty sentiment in President Bush’s quote has been contradicted, undermined, and beaten into submission by reality. Bureaucratic structures and the very culture within our military have combined to leave a force that not only has little regard for merit, but fundamentally devalues it.
A meritocracy is a system in which authority and “power are vested in individual people on the basis of talent, effort and achievement.” Other related terms like “talent management” and “human capital” may have different precise meanings, yet essentially revolve around whether or not we’re putting the right people in the right positions and whether the best ideas win out. Even for those who would argue that military readiness is the “most important” variable in this equation, a healthy meritocracy matters because it underpins trust in the chain of command. Subordinates won’t have faith in their leaders if they feel the best people and best ideas don’t rise. And unfortunately—that’s an open question for real discussion these days.
A few months ago, two well-respected US Army War College professors expressed hope that 2019 might finally be the year to confront the Army’s “culture problem” surrounding talent management. An active duty US Air Force officer, using the pen name “Col. Ned Stark,” has recently spent months racking up a series of articles that point out the serious flaws in what that service values for promotion (and more recently, he lifted his Air-Force-blue veil to identify himself). And within a single week, two pieces heaped heavy haymakers on the current human-resources system’s failure to care for spouses and families, further evidence that something’s really wrong here.
These essays build on and echo Tim Kane’s influential 2013 book, Bleeding Talent, which used devastating data to point out that when it comes to talent, “the U.S. military is doing everything wrong.” Among the killer culprits Kane found: good officers leave out of “frustration with military bureaucracy,” and “the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit.” In a telling survey, only 7 percent of West Point graduates believed the best officers stayed in the military over the long haul.
Summing up this recent writing, one finds a range of sharp conceptual, philosophical, and data-driven arguments. The missing element is actual case studies—concrete, real-world stories that focus powerful microscopes on these ills. Why?
This is the dog that didn’t bark, which should key us in on a significant part of the problem. We can’t have frank discussions about such enormous flaws out of fear of reputational reprisal that threatens professional standing. It says a lot that “Col. Ned Stark” was authorized anonymity by the editors at War on the Rocks (something they only grant in the “rarest of cases”) out of concern his career “would be at serious risk.” Speak publicly about how crummy the system is—and prepare to be excommunicated.
Which gets us to the real problem: we’re not talking about these problems openly. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines self-silence legitimate criticism because they fear swift and painful blowback. But it’s not like we don’t know they exist—anyone in uniform for even a little while knows several others with terrible tales to tell.
My West Point roommate earned a Gates Fellowship to Cambridge University for a master’s degree in electrical engineering after we graduated in 2002. However, after he finished in the UK, instead of sending this exceptionally talented engineer officer to a line unit early in the Iraq War—where we could’ve used someone that knew so much about, say, electrical engineering in Baghdad—we sent him to be a basic training executive officer. He served out this slump and couldn’t wait to tear off his uniform because he wasn’t given challenges to match his gifts. (And, yes, of course, we do need talented trainers at our military schoolhouses, but without question, his skill set would have saved lives at war.)
Or, there’s another Air Force colleague that was selected for early retirement while in the final stages of a PhD program (among several others). Setting aside particulars, the idea that the Air Force would select and invest in someone’s advanced education, and then eject that person from continued service just prior to earning a doctorate, is stunning. I’m told that a senior leader in the service heard about this happening and moved to prevent future instances—a laudable act, but one only necessary because the system allows such instances in the first place.
Both are now handsomely compensated outside the US government.
I could go on, unfortunately, because these aren’t just single stories. It’s the system, one in which the three horsemen of meritocracy’s apocalypse (bureaucracy, rankism, and personal bias) roam free, mostly at night.
It’s under cover of that darkness that the rot in the system manifests in subtle ways. In a healthy meritocratic system, there would be a relatively free flow of honest feedback that enables the best idea, or the best person, to succeed—in respectful ways that improve organizational effectiveness. But that’s not the norm, as can be seen on any given day in any American military unit.
It’s the higher-ranking individual that ignores or denies or evades real problems flagged by a junior officer or noncommissioned officer. It’s the indirect, I-agree-with-you-completely-but-we-can’t-do-that-because-it-just-might-upset-someone-higher-up-the-chain conversation. It’s a subordinate’s quietly paralytic fear of confrontation with a senior.
Nobody talks about it, but it knocks military candor down at every turn, making us weaker all the time. Sometimes the emperor you serve isn’t wearing socks, or much of anything else, and as things stand in the US military, saying something about that nudity is so severely stifled it’s a wonder it ever happens. And our adversaries may be far from perfect, but they can certainly find the vulnerable chinks exposed by an emperor’s nudity.
Big, brittle systems with such weaknesses always get exploited. It’s a “when,” not an “if.”
This matters because the US military has enormous challenges in the years ahead. And our military is unlikely to succeed if it doesn’t have the right people in the right places at the right times. The sad fact remains that, if we don’t put talent in the right job, the private sector will do it for us—at great cost to the American public.
Wouldn’t it be great if we moved from an Industrial Age talent management model to one designed for the Information Age? To move from a system full of cogs—undifferentiated, identical portions stacked into a pyramid—to one leveraging big data that creates purpose-built teams vastly greater than the sum of their well-assembled Tetris-piece parts?
“Wouldn’t that be nice?” as “Col. Ned Stark” once wrote. Moreover, it’s what a truly modern meritocracy should demand.
Who knows, perhaps the military profession can change. After all, that’s what professions do: they reflect, learn, and grow. The Army, for one, has announced it is rolling out a new personnel system intended to better capture individuals’ unique “skills, knowledge, attributes, and talents.” The incoming Army chief of staff, Gen. James McConville, also seems to get it—in his confirmation hearing recently, he said “young men and women today” want to serve “something bigger than themselves,” yet, “they do not see themselves as interchangeable parts.” And so he promised that the service is on course to build a “21st century talent management system that recognizes every person in the Army for their unique talents.”
Time will tell. Count me as skeptical. There’s nothing easier or less satisfying than superficial changes that don’t address deeper issues. But if we’re lucky, by the end of that process, maybe we’ll be a little closer to what President Bush said in 1993, describing long past days, when our military “thrived on its commitment to developing and promoting excellence.”
We should get that back.
Image credit: Spc. Ryan Green, US Army
Back in at least the 1950s, the personnel system was such that, for enlisted, x-number of stripes had to filter down from division and eventually down to company. My father, though he was number one on the promotion list in his company in Germany, ended up being number two as the single stripe went to another whose personnel folder was flagged as having "political influence."
I had good and bad experiences with it in the 1970s. Called from Vietnam for my next assignment (that was truly an experience from a military cranking-type phone that went through Guam, SF, St. Louis, into D.C.) during a rocket attack on Rocket City (Da Nang). Later in the 1980s, I had orders to DIA (and was pleased), they were changed, called branch and the guy had given it to someone else. After an short conversation, the detailer said, "You don't have a tactical assignment" which I responded, "What, Vietnam wasn't enough?"
The last conversation was the final straw. Went to my last assignment for 8 month and ended up working for a defense company that paid me three times as much as I was making.
Hope the new system works better.
I was an electrical engineer in Baghdad and we desperately needed guys like your roommate for SIGINT, ELINT, and to fight a continuously shifting battle against the IED's we were being faced with. Every move we made, they would countermove with new designs. The DoD's answer to this? Throw a bunch of contractors at it in DC. We needed experts in communications, SATCOM, Electronic Warfare, and other seriously technical battlespaces. Nothing against a missileer I dearly care about, but where your roommate should have been, the AF sent a missileer with little technical background and education to fill an Electronic Warfare slot. She did great, but she was not the correct person for that job. Your roommate was.
So, as we always do, I flew under the radar – doing my day job in view of the maniacal GO's around us, but moonlighting with the SNCO's helping them set up crude SIGINT assets with equipment we pooled together and bought from ham radio and hobby stores at home. In partnership with A2/G2 friendships we developed, we essentially went rogue and in the end, we found some really bad dudes and saved lives. But in the end no one cared. not a mention was ever made in any evaluations. After three of these deployments, I got one phone call from a good friend who said "I am not allowed to tell you anything else but that you led to catching someone I'm not allowed to even speak their name". Nothing ever went into an OPR or my retirement award about anything we had done. I was given a medal for building an office in Al Dhafra. Yay.
But we didn't want medals. We simply wanted the bureaucracy to work in a way that stopped our brothers and sisters from being shredded on a daily basis by IED's I felt could easily be defeated, or systems that could triangulate the 6 or so 80 and 120 mm rockets raining down on us. Many victims we knew, including their kids, parents, and friends – because it is a small military. Their coffins passed by the front door of my office in Sather every day, and so your post resurrected some really pissed off memories over this BS.
We had to do this under the political cover like some "stranger Things" theme because damn you if you get caught doing something other than pushing drawings of sidewalks and T barriers.
Love the article, I retired last year due to my BS bucket had overflowed. Seriously in 2017 did ILE as late in my career as possible, because I could see ZERO value added to my peers upon there completions. Then when I attended the "push" was/is to have the class as DL only. Really tells you how jacked Professional Development is when the schoolhouse knows the curriculum sucks and adds no value.
Further, War College comes too late in ones career to add the huge value to the Military. Granted if there was (I dont know) a bonus to incentivize officers to stay longer..oh and fixing a system where they see peers who are yes people getting opportunities that dont match their peers skillsets.
I agree wholeheartedly. While in the reserves I used the GI bill to get a Civil Engineering degree & then pursued a commission as a civil engineering staff officer & LDO. After trying for 4 years with no success I came to the realization that it was costing me too much time off of a well paying job to pursue something that the Navy had no interest in giving me. Ironic really, since they had paid for so much of my schooling.
I hung on & retired as an E7, but it was tough. The only reason I made it was because my employer paid my full salary when I was active. My civilian job paid as much as an O6.
This is one of the most accurate assessments of this issue I've read. The struggle to recognize and reword performance is well known , to the point of being a stereotype. The battalion clerk with a chest full of medals, after one deployment getting promoted, while the fire team leader with 3 deployments and a well trained team stands in the ranks during the awards ceremony – standard fare for jokes and stories. But the fact is, line troops are routinely overlooked for strong performance deserving recognition, while other echelons are awarded for performance, and promoted. This is the result of poor leadership at many levels. Line leaders are strong tactically, but are often poor at recording troop performance, which results in weak or no supporting documentation to higher for awards or promotions, while other echelons have the time and skillsets to document performance well and know the process fluently. The issue being that Tactical leaders are often highly focused on the mission, and because their time and resources are limited, this is to the detriment of personnel management. Army command solutions, such as promotion points, lists etc. simply indicate a lack of understanding on how to encourage maximum performance with the appropriate response.
You are so true, right now a ton of the smartest kids are leaving West Point !
They have better opportunities elsewhere! They are not given chances to promotion because they are not from military or political families!
One person in charge neglecting a bunch smart kids because they are not friends or from same religious group and makes it known to everyone that he Fing hates them or him/her that kid or kids feel left out and you can’t snitch!
So eat shit!
Leaving the smart ones to abandon West Point after 2-3 years invested !
The name is historically praised as West Point one of the elite institutions!
It is because of so much taxpayer money to fund it and give them everything they need to learn , but the results are not same as the investment! ( great)
Thanks and I concur with your perspective. I wanted to add to it: the second and third order consequences of poor military talent management that bleeds over. Enlisted and Officers who have attributes that are in demand leave early or retire and move into contracting or industry roles where they can leverage their skills and talents, sometimes their rank…. Those who move into the defense industrial complex and take their poor military-talent mindsets with them too often have more influence than they should… Those who don't have such opportunities and desired attributes are too often able to extend their DoD "service" and return as DoD civilians in mid – high grades and continue to wreak havoc on civilians just as they did while in the service. Not everyone is this way obviously, but there is a clearly discernable trend.
Supervisory position selections (and subsequent leadership selections) should include much more than individual contribution factors. Supervisors need to deliver results through their subordinates – and if they don't exhibit that attribute before or soon after they are selected – they need to be revectored to where they contributed their best work and offered more opportunity to learn how to support and lead people, and draw out the best in them.
The information age is quickly eroding the command, control, and conform culture. The lock-step serial career paths (for the majority) in the DoD are preventing the realization of potential talent. Innovation, diversity & inclusion cannot be fostered in the current culture because there is a presumption that those in charge know better and know more than those (cumulatively) below in the hierarchy – and this is categorically false in the information age. There is simply too much information freely available, to encapsulate and push up the chain, and talent is often frustrated by conform and obey culture. Supervisors and leaders cannot maintain information superiority over their subordinates, especially where they demand conformity and boxing people in to narrow and shallow functional categories or roles. People are multidimensional, asking them to just do as they are told to do discards and destroys talent and potential. We have to do a better job of selecting and vetting people with authority over others and include criteria and attributes that value and empower people to contribute their best.
In the National Guard many of these problems are exacerbated by the fact that you have a very limited number of slots. If there is one battalion in your state for a particular branch you have five company commanders all going for the single S3 slot which leads to the XO slot which leads to the BN Commander slot. But either the XO or the S3 has to be an AGR (full-time) Soldier which means if you're a traditional Soldier competing for one of those slot you may not be eligible and could miss out. The good old boy network is still alive and well in some units and states. If you rubbed a certain senior person or persons the wrong way they could potentially limit your career for a long time.
One problem I've seen is that almost every officer is rotated into company command, whether they have the talent and skills or not. On the NCO side, there is generally a lot more competition for Platoon Sergeant, let alone First Sergeant. On the officer side I've seen people that were frankly worthless make it to Major just because they stuck around long enough. There's a tendency to promote as long as you put in your time with no real selection occurring until the LTC level. By then you have already lost a lot of good officers who left for various reasons – such as seeing incompetent peers get promoted ahead of them.
I retired from the ARNG T10 program 5 years ago. In addition to the limited number of slots, there is a promotion board. It judged who would get promoted on five criteria: Military bearing, Military Education, Civilian Education, Past Assignments, and Potential. This is how they worked:
Military Bearing = Your APFT score. At least it was an objective criterion, but accounted for nothing else.
Military Education = If you had the normal course for your rank, (CCC, CGSC, War College, etc.), it did not matter much. No more was granted if you had additional courses that might be beneficial to your assignment.
Civilian Education = Wild card. I saw different people with the exact same degree from the exact same place, (notably Webster, an easy Masters while you are in CGSC), with the exact same GPA assigned differing point totals. Nothing was granted if you had a significant degree from a notable university and a high GPA.
Past Assignments = Wild card. As long as you had appropriate assignments, you would get a minimum score, but anything off the usual would not get you anything. Again, different people with the same experiences would get differing points.
Potential = Total wild card; the worst of all. How can 'potential' be evaluated, anyway? Did they pass out crystal balls to divine it? It amounted to whether or not somebody on the board liked you and wanted to see you promoted.
I got into the program to do an enjoyable job. I got transferred to a pointless, unrewarding job for a short time, then to another enjoyable job. When I had to leave that one, I was offered a meaningless job, so I opted to retire. I now run my own company. I wonder if that possibility occurred to the boobs who low-balled my "Potential" score?
In the book "On the Incompetence of Military Leadership," Norman Dixon stumbles upon much the same, though his slant is more how the military ego, and its consequences, interrupts sound decision making. He notes many reasons for this, but his observations are from the early 1970's. I wonder if the reasons are the same, or have they morphed into something more sinister in the 21st Century? Further, I wonder if the reason why we (the royal "military" we, writ large) do not want to talk about the lack of inherent meritocracy is because there is not a simple cause, rather death by 1,000 cuts, nobody having the observation, will, or the tour length to uncover roots causes. Instead, any efforts are kept to one to three year jaunts, and the senior leadership receiving any truncated results more inclined to show how they are not the "it" described, because of their "superior" will and talent, than to push for enterprise wide solution. In any case, we must first accept that what has been written is, in FACT, truth, then we must define the problem, or fall continued victim to symptom chasing…and be found lacking and late to need.