Turning the tables on a top-down military culture


U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. (Lee Jin-man/AP)
Jena McGregor
Columnist April 16, 2013

The military’s top-down culture is going bottoms up.

Not entirely, of course. But following a series of scandals that called into question the judgment or personal ethics of high-ranking officers, the military will begin requiring that the character of its generals and admirals also be reviewed by the people who work for them, the New York Times reported.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, is bringing the corporate-style 360-degree reviews to the armed forces. In order “to assess both competence and character in a richer way,” Dempsey said, he will begin having top officers be evaluated by their peers and the people within their command, rather than only by their superiors and only for their “professional performance.” The move is part of a broader effort to reinstitute more regular training and development for military officers and review the size of top officers’ staffs.

The move is not a surprising one from Dempsey, a thoughtful student of leadership who has talked in the past about transforming the military’s command-and-control hierarchy. The unquestioned authority of higher-ups may be essential on the battlefield, but it’s not necessarily the best way for the military to run itself in other cases. Building security forces requires a more decentralized approach. Soldiers might be more receptive to learning new things from peers within their social networks than getting new concepts drilled into them by officers they barely know.

And who is better positioned to evaluate officers’ character and ethics than the people within their command? Higher-ups typically only see them at their best. The people who work for them get glimpses of their worst. Moreover, getting more feedback from more sources on an officer’s character seems like basic common sense.

But no matter how logical such a change might be, it’s likely to meet resistance. As the Times article states, Dempsey has acknowledged that some in the senior ranks have already expressed concern that the new evaluations could damage the disciplined hierarchy upon which the military prides itself. And the top brass won’t be the only ones who have trouble adjusting to the new reviews. It will surely take time — especially in a top-down culture as entrenched as the military’s — for the rank-and-file to feel comfortable enough to give truly honest and candid evaluations of their bosses.

In addition, Dempsey will have to be careful not to let the new reviews become more of a headache than a help. In the corporate world, 360-degree reviews are often started with the best of intentions, only to become a dreaded process of filling out a ton of extra HR paperwork. When you have to write more than a dozen reviews of different peers, managers and underlings, it’s easy to lose sight of how that “busy work” actually helps.

Dempsey’s overhaul of top officers’ reviews is an important first step toward shaking up some of the military’s hierarchies, holding its leaders more accountable, and improving the overall character of the leaders in its ranks. But as with all changes of this magnitude, it won’t be easy. Turning the tables rarely is.

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