Leadership, brightsizing, and the hollowing of the force

Comes now word from the Army Times that one of the leading reasons soldiers leave the Army isn’t the multiple tours to war zones, but a disgust with the quality of leadership they serve under.

Poor leadership is driving soldiers to leave the Army, reinforcing the service’s push to make leader development a top priority. The results come from a survey by the Army Research Institute that showed 26 percent of sergeants and staff sergeants and 23 percent of lieutenants and captains surveyed planned to leave the Army after completing their current service obligations.

Of those, 35 percent of enlisted and 26 percent of officers cited the quality of leadership at their duty stations as a reason for leaving.

Poor leadership was the top reason selected by the active-duty enlisted survey participants and the third-most popular reason among the active-duty officers surveyed. Among noncommissioned officers, leadership concerns were a greater motivation to quit than the relentless pace of deployments.

The Army has been down this road before. As the Vietnam was dragged on, and especially immediately after the war, the core of mid-grade officers and NCOs was weak. Many of the best and brightest, disillusioned by the war and tired from multiple tours, left the service to seek greener pastures elsewhere. But like nature, the Army abhors a vacuum, and someone had to be promoted to serve in those grades. That meant a lot of people who should have been thanked for their service and shown the door were instead promoted to positions that had an immediate and unfortunate impact on the lives of their subordinates. Which in turn drove the best and brightest of that tranche out of the service. It was a vicious cycle.

We are approaching much the same problem with the force today. While recruiting and retention have been very good, considering the blistering pace of deployments, the burnout factor has been very high for folks in the middle grades.

Good leadership is a lot of work. You have to go the extra mile to take care of your soldiers, and very often, the people that take that step only have a limited supply of strength. If you work hard, subordinate your own wants and needs to the welfare of your troops, sacrifice your personal life so your soldiers get what they deserve, and then look around and see that slackers are promoted at the same rate as you, wouldn’t you start to wonder if your sacrifices were worth it?

Even in this tough economy, many military leaders are highly sought after by private employers. This drain on the mid-grades, both officer and enlisted, is what drives the promotion rates in the upper 90% range that the article mentions.

“We’re promoting 95 to 98 percent of captains to major, 93 or 95 percent of majors to lieutenant colonel. We shouldn’t be satisfied … because 98 percent of captains don’t deserve to be promoted to major. Statistically, that’s an infeasible percentage. And we’ve got to do the same thing on the noncommissioned officer side.”

I suspect also, part of the problem is the uniformity of career progression, particularly on the officer side. Every commissioned officer is expected to be a leader, of course, but the Army also expects every officer to strive for and hold command at certain levels of their career. And frankly, a lot of officers just don’t find that a very pleasant prospect. They are more suited to staff positions than commanding large bodies of troops.  I have no idea how to change the career path to address that problem, short of finding those people and showing them the door. But that only makes the problem of shortages of troops at certain levels even more extreme.

Training and leadership development are key components of fixing the problem. But how do you devise and implement a program to address that when the very leaders that are expected to do so are the problematical leaders in the first place?

25 thoughts on “Leadership, brightsizing, and the hollowing of the force”

  1. Sounds like quite a jam. Ideally you’d purge and replace but you’d want to ensure the ones purged are the less optimal ones. Might be an idea to see if some of those who left can be pulled back.

    How did they improve the situation from the last time?

    1. Ideally, we’ll be able to head off the worst effects of hollowing the force. Last time, there were several outstanding 3 and 4 star leaders, who tackled more than just the quality problem at leadership, but seized the chance to almost wholly revamp the way the Army trained, developed doctrine, bought equipment and managed its personnel.

      Now, we may have leaders that try to do that again, but I am quite dubious they would have the same clarity of vision that the leadership in the 70s had. At least the leadership then had a simpler template to build upon. They were able to focus primarily on the Soviet threat to Western Europe, knowing that if they could field a force that could fight and win there, it would have excellent prospects on any battlefield. The challenges facing the leadership today aren’t quite as in focus. Do we field a COIN force for fights like Afghanistan? Heavy force for fights like the invasion of Iraq? A force that can be deployed rapidly to the Rim of the Pacific?

      We just don’t know what the next threat will be.

    2. Hey xbradtc,

      I disagree with you about the COIN vs conventional vs rapid deployment. I don’t think that is relevant really to this problem of leadership. As I see it, from the article and the blog and the comments, the problem is poor leadership.

      I agree, and I think that with good leadership, the question of how to shape the force pretty much resolves itself. Meaning that a good force with good leadership but a less than optimal force set up beats a medicore force with poor leadership but awesome doctrine.

      I mean, doctrine IS important. But the leadership is the critical thing.

  2. I was there for the post-Vietnam debacle. Was not much of a leader, myself, see General Schwarzkopf’s book for details, I was one of those grunts during his tenure at Ft. Lewis. What I did see was a lot of guys in leadership positions simply hanging on for retirement, which couldn’t come fast enough. Far too many were burned out, cynical and beyond digging in.

    What I’ve learned since then is that the fundamental demand of leadership is to prove daily why you are the boss. Not that you are the boss but why. Back then, and I suspect today, too many are not making that distinction.

  3. The Army has no one to blame but itself for poor leadership. If it wants good leaders, then it has to stop promoting people based on race.

    The Army will actively deny it, but when I was in, 98-05, every single Sergeant Major I had at Battalion and Brigade level was a minority, every single 1st Sergeant in the Brigade was either a minority or a female, and all but two platoon Sergeants I had in that 8 year time period were minorities or female.

    If you are a minority, or have a vagina you are guaranteed a career past Staff Sergeant. At the time, if you are a white male, you could forget about it. Now, if you are a white male and have been passed up for promotion you can just claim to be gay and watch the promotion board come knocking down your door the next time it meets.

  4. Exactly right on non-merit promotion. They must eliminate all but merit from NCO promotions. Then you might get some good leaders. Left the Army after 20 years and 6 days the same month Iraq was invaded. Why? Because I was very tired of doing the work of my superiors who could not read and write past the 6th grade level. Anybody remember Colon Powell’s NCO testing – half common leadership skills tests, half SQT? They threw it out after the failure list matched the NCO promotion list. Seems the people they liked to promote were functional idiots. They are reaping what they sowed.

    1. Just want to add on to what John posted – I’m a retired Navy guy that is working for a contractor in Saudi Arabia. About 98% of the American workforce is retired/former Army (Navy/Marine/AF are the minority), the majority of them are retired SGM/Field Grade officers. I’ve never been around a horrible group of “leaders/managers” in my life – most are social misfits that seem to find their IQ in a bottle of booze every night. There are a couple of them that can’t seem to put two cohesive thoughts together on a sheet of paper/e-mail…and too many of them seem to thing they are back on AD again, strutting around like proud primadonnas in a house of ill repute. The PGM for this “organization” is a nice guy (retired three star), but can’t seem to understand that this is a business, not another overseas tour (the company has made some BAD business/financial decisions over the last 18 months…and the big defense contractor in DC is not happy about that!), and doesn’t want to be a “bad guy” and fire some of the idiots that surround him – and promote those that can manage/make things happen.

      One thing that I have noticed about this bunch here – they are really threatened when someone has the capability to “think out of the box” or practice some common sense…the paranoia seems to go up exponentially (and it’s funny to see the looks on their faces…like someone has kicked them in the crotch).

  5. Part of the problem when I was in the service were the promotion requirements. It was basically a points system and if you had enough points and were above the “cut off” score, you got promoted.

    Commanders should be given the authority to promote individuals on the spot regardless of their “score” on the points system.

    One thing I noticed (note that I was in a highly technical specialty) is that the very best at their job were very rarely the ones with highly-shined shoes and creased uniforms. The ones with the really shiny shoes and impeccably policed personal area were generally making up for their lack of skills in their specialty by being very good at “playing Army”.

    I believe their specialty skills should be weighted higher in the selection process as should some form of objective scoring by subordinates but I admit that would be difficult to accomplish. The one with the perfect uniform, squared away bunk, and everything “just so” is likely to make a very good driver for a colonel but might not be worth a damn when the crap hits the fan.

    1. It is still a point based system, AFAIK, but it seems the cut-off scores tend to be pretty low.

      And I basically have no problem with a semi-centralized point based system. My issues were usually with where the points came from. The Army placed enormous emphasis on civilian education, but never came up with a really good metric that showed civilian education made for better NCOs. I think stronger emphasis on points for military education, awards, and some other more duty related yardsticks would be better.

      The points assigned by the local board also troubled me a bit, because the board didn’t really look to leadership capability but instead focused on trivia that had little real world application. Instead of asking a young Specialist what he would do in a tactical or leadership situation, they’d ask questions from a canned cheat sheet.

      As to the commander’s points, some commanders were stingy, and used their evaluation to either support or weed out candidates, while others routinely gave the full 200 points to anyone who passed the board.

  6. Here is a recent episode that explains what is going on in the military right now and why most of the decent officers and NCOs are heading for the door at the first opportunity. Recently, all the officers in my unit, a special operations squadron at Hurlburt Field, had a commander’s call with the Full Bird (O-6). As we all sat there in the base auditorium, this colonel pretty much ordered us to get off our asses and get our master’s degrees completed, ASAP.

    Why, you might ask? Simple. The USAF had decided to mask (ie. hide) the number of deployments and number of combat hours that Air Force flying officers have in their records. Apparently, most of the Air Force doesn’t deploy or fly in combat. So, because of those two things being masked, aviators in AFSOC (Air Force Special Ops Command) were being promoted to Major and Lieutenant Colonel at about a 20% lower rate than the rest of the Air Force. That is, if the promotion rate for Lt Col. was, say 70% last month, it was really 50% for the AFSOC guys. The official Air Force answer to this was “well, those AFSOC guys didn’t get their master’s degrees completed, so that’s the reason for the 20% split between them and the rest of the USAF”. So this colonel was telling us to get our master’s done (“I don’t give a damn if you go online and get a degree from Shit U, just get it done!”) because that was the excuse they were using to not promote AFSOC aviators and he thought that all of us getting our masters degree would somehow reverse this trend. What is really happening, though, is that guys are now just getting out in disgust with the whole system rather than sticking around.

    I myself am living proof of this. I’m at the 19 year mark right now, so I’m officially retiring next May. I’ve been passed over for Lieutenant Colonel for the last 6 years, probably due to (you guessed it) not getting a masters. Apparently, being an MH-53 helo pilot for 12 years, then a UH-1 and Mi-17 pilot for another 6 years didn’t cut it. I’ve deployed to Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia, Africa, Afghanistan, the P.I., select parts of Central and South America (I speak Spanish too, by the way) and Korea. But that is all masked, you see, so I’m passed over so that some pencil neck with a master’s degree can sit in the Pentagon and build Powerpoint slides all day.

    It’s a damn shame, really, because the current military could be so different if the senior generals were to actually show some spine and stop promoting the careerist assholes who care for nothing and no one except that next step up the ladder. But they don’t and the current exodus will continue.

    Someone once said that people tend to vote in the leadership they deserve. For the military, I would amend that to “military leaders promote the future leaders they deserve”. Unfortunately, the whole country will pay the price for having a shitty officer and NCO corps when this whole thing has run its course.

    Pave Low John

    1. For some reason, the Air Force (and the other services) seem to think every officer needs to be on a career path to be the next Chief of Staff. I think there must be any number of officers who wonder just how useful their “joint” tours are.

    2. Maybe the army is different. I was promoted without Master’s degree. I don’t know how this O6 told your crowd to get them, but it sounds to me like he was telling you the trend in promotions and that if you wanted to get promoted, then you needed to get a graduate degree. I’ve had ample opportunity to get my own finished, despite multiple deployments, but haven’t. If i had looked at the stats and it said that I wouldn’t get promoted without one, I would have finished mine a long time ago (I have been 10/12s of the way done for five years.) As you describe it, this O6 example does not sound like an example of bad leadership in my opinion. I agree that the whole of your file should be considered for promotion.

    3. Only a master’s in a military subject, however, should be considered. An MBA is one of the worst degrees to try to take into the military, but, from what I understand, is one of the most popular.

  7. I do not think that it is the wars that is causing the vacuum. I think the vacuum is a permanent aspect of the establishment of the armed forces. The armed forces refuses to look at their leaders at any given point in time critically and adjust as is needed. I was professionally attacked by a first sergeant in the Marines just after the first gulf war. He had just taken his position in our battalion and did not know me from anyone else. Until that point I had been an exemplary Marine. My duties and personal scores were impeccable, my only negative spot was I only had my second rate rifleman pin, due to a rifle jam and my pft score was hampered by an inability to run 3 miles any faster than 19:19. He just simply waled up to me and started stripping me in front of the entire company trying to find something wrong with my uniform. Every item he attempted to say was out of spec was falsified by the marine corps manual. Despite the fact that there was nothing wrong, my attitude during the stripping was not to his liking. I requested mast, all the way up to the General of Camp Pendleton and at each place, it did not matter this First Sergeant was in the wrong. I only had a few months left on my enlistment, even though I had joined to be a careerist. By the time I left, the First Sergeant had finally picked on the wrong person, or persons. He thought that he could tell several Lieutenants that the could not go to McDonald’s in their uniforms. They had a similar attitude towards him as he did me, and he was demoted to barely my superior. The people in my command line who got promoted had the following qualities which I did not. They liked to smoke and joke with the higher ups and brass, typically crude and nasty jokes. They drank coffee with the higher ups and brass. They degraded women at every possible opportunity with impunity. They liked to get drunk and belligerent at the pub, with the higher ups and brass. Me, I just got perfect on all my inspections, personal and job related, 100% across the board, no reason to promote me.

  8. I think I will give a little bit different take on this than has been given so far.

    Having been a Warrant Officer aviator for the last 24 years I recently made the decision to retire from the Army. Part of the reason for me is the continuing parade of prima donna commanders who rule by intimidation and show contempt and disdain for the Soldiers the Army has entrusted them with. Bad commanders is nothing new and when I first entered the Army the ratio was for me was about 2 good for every bad one. Lately that ratio has seemed to reverse itself. It is infuriating to see officers who are wholly unsuited to command not only allowed to command but to continue in command while ruining the careers of their subordinates and causing many in their command to vote with their feet at the first opportunity. I don’t know how these people came to be this way and honestly I don’t think some sort of class or school would change the behavior patterns that I have personally observed as their command style doesn’t conform with any type of leadership training I have seen in my entire 40+ years on this planet.

    Combine these people with a deployment rate of 50% over the past 6 years, along with little to no official recognition of the job that has been done and you get unhappy Soldiers. It shouldn’t take a brain surgeon to figure this out, and yet they let these people stay around.

  9. A whole lot of room for comment and observations here! I would make the following:
    -Rate of promotion. Too fast at all leadership grades. Not enough time to develop skills and experiences with which to lead. Mandated by the army. They have recently slowed promo to captain back to I believe 42 months, which is still at least six months too quick. SSGs and SFCs with 5 or 8 years in is crazy, too. Even worse, actually, because the guy training the new LTs is also messsed up.
    -Promotion rates. The seeds of current high selection rates were sewn in the 90s, not today. Beginning with year group 93-94, 1LTs quit in droves, creating a large swath of vacancies for CPTs and MAJs that began to show in 98 or so. The rate of retention for CPTs has increased, to where there is going to be some competition again soon. Logistics officers are actually looking at about 77% selection already. Other branches should be too, soon. Especially with the economy.
    -Almost zero mentorship and development offered from senior leaders. Though they wont say no if you ask, they aren’t out voluntarily giving it either.
    -On the flip side, the army does screen applicants for command. For example, while essentially all captains will command a company, only about 20% of lieutenant colonels will command a battalion. Anecdotally, looking at people I know who have been selected for command, they are pretty sharp. Yes, there are also some total weasels as well, but for the most part the army gets it right.
    -In my particular case, I learned my leadership in the 1980s as a team and squad leader. To be frank, applying that kind of leadership in 2011, amongst a crowd that often has little intestinal fortitude, discipline, can’t go ten minutes without looking at some electronic device, and does not understand the idea of selfless service is pretty hard, and not understood by the recipients, who equate “That guy pushes me too hard to be proficient, but but but I want my family time, so he is a jerk” with bad leadership.
    -Now, I fully agree that there are some bad leaders out there, but I also believe that in many cases, the Soldiers don’t really understand what good leadership really entails. (Hint, it doesn’t just mean getting your Soldiers as much time off as you can get them.) But what do I know; I only retained almost all of my lieutenants and captains, and had the highest retention / re-enlistment rates in the Bns and BDes.
    -Bottom line: it is a legit concern, but there are two sides to the story, and the Army Times, as always, has produced a shallow story with an alarmist title. I don’t doubt for a minute that for the entirety of the history of the US Army that 35% or so of the Soldiers didn’t make the decision to get out based directly on the leadership that they served under, especially when as broadly-defined as “the NCOs and officers.” The fact is that the army is an up-or-out pyramid. The guys that are getting out will get out anyway, and those that stay in deserve the best possible leadership.

  10. You are not alone. Some of my SEAL Team friends and I talk of writing a book about it someday titled after what a British SAS guy said to one of my SEAL buddies in Afghanistan in 2002. He said, “You all are lions led by dogs, mate.”

    The Navy (and other services it sounds like) are not war fighting organizations. They are officer ascension mechanisms. Literally, every single unit in the military, every mission, every program is subordinate to the “schedule” that officers must adhere to. There is a career progression track that these officers are placed on and that track supersedes any other consideration and it is rigorously enforced by the officers on the top of the food chain. The result obviously is that solid operators are cycled through their operational tours at the same rate as total asshats. And once they are through being operational, they go to DevGru or they are gone. All we are left with above o-4 are a bunch of social climbing turds with minimal time in the barrel. Their only consideration is hitting their next career hurdle and not getting in trouble so you get the leadership that flows from that.

    Someday that book will be written.

  11. I’m no fan of the Army TImes and often equate it to the Military’s version of the National Enquirer…but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

    While the Army does screen for BN command, it can only screen those that are left. If so many CPTs are leaving that the promotion rate to MAJ is 90%+, then there is something wrong.

    An article in MIlitary Review says this about Toxic Leadership…

    Ask a group of military officers and noncommissioned officers if they have considered leaving the profession of arms because of the way a supervisor treated them, and, depending on their time in service, anywhere from a third to all of them will raise their hands to say yes. However, what we should recognize about such an informal polling process is that we are only addressing the survivors. We have no idea how many actually left, and whether those who chose to leave were talented contributors chased out by bad leadership or low performers not suited for a military career. Spend some additional time with those who raised their hands and, if you give them a chance to tell you, you will hear some tales of abuse that are inconsistent with a world-class organization. A professional and recruited force requires leadership that inspires, not dissuades, continuing service.

    There are also other articles dating back to 2004 about leadership issues in the Army. Google “army toxic leadership” and see what you find. This is nothing new and attempts to explain it away aren’t going to fix anything.

    1. Everyone has considered leaving because of leadership. Some leave, some don’t. The beauty of the army is that, given assignments/promotions/jobs, either you or your boss changes pretty much every year. With regards to “toxic leadership” the worst I ever saw was my PSG back in 1987-8. It is not a new problem, we just talk about it more now. Not to mention, the led put up with a lot less before whining about it!

  12. Hey, so long as the military’s diversity isn’t dwindling. Now that would be a tragedy.


  13. I guess I am atypical. I have always subscribed to “Mission, Men, Self” and it has worked for me. I have served as a team leader, squad leader, platoon leader (2x), company XO, BDE AS3, CO CDR (2x), HHC trainer, BCT AS3, Squadron S3, Squadron XO, BCT S3 and BCT XO, and now instructor of tactics. I have never taken one job, ever, with thoughts of furthering my career or “ticket punching” and have twice deliberately opted for jobs that are not career-enhancing. Despite this, I have been selected for BN Command. Why? Because a person that has had those experiences is most likely to successfully command them. So why did I take them? Because they are professionally rewarding in and of themselves. Why did I do well in them? Because I have always said that my primary responsibility is maintaining an organization that is ready to go to war. This requires hard decisions sometimes. Ergo, Mission, Men, Self. I have always observed that it is easy to be cool/popular when you are not in charge, and I will also say that it is easy to form impressions that are not based in fact. I am going to say that most of my peers fall along the lines of motivations and performance based on the same reasoning as me. However, unfortunately, I will also agree that there are some crappy, careerist guys out there, that have messed things up for the rest, but they are not the majority. Leaders get paid, mainly, to do one thing, which is make decisions. Problem with decisions is that usually there are people who want both sides, but only one gets chosen. I can look back at everything I have done since 1986 and there are only three things I would change if I could. Bottom line is, when I look around my organizations and I have a solid, professional working relationship and mutual regard for my stud Soldiers/NCOs, and officers, then I have concluded that I am doing the right things when the duds don’t seem to like me. The actions that a leader must take to satisfy both the studs and duds are often mutually exclusive. Cast aspersions and make judgements about all leaders if you like, I agree there are certainly problems, but these problems are not new, and they are not as rampant as people think. Most leaders just do their time and get out when it is no longer fun or the handwriting is on the wall. I have also done my part to cull out the crappy leadership, but am limited by high selection rates for promotion, and rapidly-promoted and inexperienced officers and NCOs that have very limited experiences in providing the garrison leadership that we are starting to return to.

  14. The 800 lb gorilla in the room is, and will continue to be, diversity at the expense of leadership. I’ve sat on senior officer boards and despite the precept of “best qualified”, good leaders are left on the table in favor of diversity picks. It has become so blatantly obivous that senior leaders will do longer discuss the results of boards with their constituents in any forum.
    I’ve been in Navy medicine for 38 years (13 enlisted, 25 commissioned) and had a million dollars worth of diversity training shoved up my ass a nickel at a time. Skewed selection boards are no longer our dirty little secret, it’s become accepted as routine. In zone selection rate for O-6 white males this year (in my corps), <8%. Eight above zone picks in a field of about 22. Who you gonna complain to? Your CO (diversity pick female minority)? Your Corps Chief (diversity pick female minority)? Your Surgeon General (345 lb male minority)? Your president (you know the drill)?

    Unfortunately for the troops, they get the leaders the Congress thinks they deserve. For years, I have given my JO's and a copy of the 1944 Royal Navy Officer's Pocket Book, primarily for the value of its chapters on leadership. My current CO asked me why, so I gave her a copy. Two days later I got it back with a handwritten note that said "Too dry for me–thanks though!)

  15. While there are few women worth the time of day in leadership roles, the “her” pretty much says it all for me. The PC cancer has metastasized to the brain and the services are in very deep trouble. If we are tested by a first rate opponent, I seriously doubt we would win it.

  16. Until we get a new CIC, it’s hope(and changeless), and now we have some kind of Jimmy Carter leftover, as Sec. of Defense. I’d hate to whine, like Hudson, in the movie, Aliens. “Game Over man, game over, they are going to come in a kill us……”

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