Pentagon personnel chief draws criticism for leadership style


Defense Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness Clifford Stanley gestures during a media briefing at the Pentagon Jan. 28, 2011, to discuss the progress of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal implementation effort. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Pentagon’s top personnel manager, brought in last year to reorganize a troubled division, has drawn complaints that his ineffective leadership has undermined his staff and slowed the program that helps wounded troops return to civilian life.

The Defense Department inspector general is investigating reports, mostly anonymous, that Clifford L. Stanley, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, hurt morale by dismissing or reassigning dozens of top officials, spent lavishly on a new conference room, and offended staff members when he used the word “mongoloidism” to describe people of low intelligence.

In early 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates asked Stanley to shake up the division of personnel and readiness, which was acknowledged to be underperforming, particularly on troop care. Stanley’s supporters say that he has succeeded and that his critics are mainly those he has dismissed or moved aside.

The division, along with the Department of Veterans Affairs, oversees the “Wounded Warrior” program, which enables incapacitated service members to return to civilian life by assessing their disabilities and helping them to obtain benefits. Under Stanley, his critics charge, such transitions have become more time-consuming.

In May 2010, three months after Stanley took office, the process took 291 days on average; in June 2011, it took 410 days, according to Defense officials familiar with the program who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

“The department is aware of the allegations and takes them seriously,” said a Defense Department spokesman, Col. David Lapan, adding that “the personnel and readiness enterprise must create a culture of relevance, effectiveness and efficiency to meet the emerging needs of our service members and their families.” Stanley himself declined to comment.

Lapan acknowledged that it has been taking longer for wounded troops to exit the military. “That the average length of time it takes has been increasing is not necessarily indicative of a problem,” Lapan said. “The important thing is to ensure there is no gap between the military and the VA systems.”

One former official said that the personnel and readiness division urgently needed new leadership because it was unresponsive and bureaucratic. “Most folks didn’t see how bad it was,” he said. “At P&R, the senior folks were average at best, and that’s being very kind.” He declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

“The Pentagon goes by ‘don’t upset the apple cart, don’t upset the bureaucracy,’ and as a result, things go at a snail’s pace,” he said. “[Stanley] is actually exercising management. Here is a guy who took the bull by the horns and tried to build an organization.”

As a senior policy adviser to the secretary of defense, Stanley is responsible for recruitment, career development, and pay and benefits for 1.4 million active-duty military personnel, 1.3 million National Guard and reserve personnel, and 680,000 Defense Department civilians. He also oversees the state of military readiness.

Seven written complaints about Stanley, all but one of which were unsigned, have been obtained by The Washington Post from two current Defense officials. Some were submitted to the inspector general; Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said that a House subcommittee is also investigating allegations against Stanley.

Several of the submissions allege that the departure of dozens of senior executives has caused disarray and contributed to the stalling of vital programs. “His harmful leadership has destroyed the morale and effectiveness” of the division, one letter reads. “He has decimated the leadership core.”

Two unsigned complaints say that in a February 2011 staff meeting, Stanley used a word many found offensive. In an interview, a senior official who said he attended the meeting corroborated the accounts. “I remember him using the word ‘mongoloidism,’ ” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works in Stanley’s division. “I thought it was strange. A number of people said they were offended after the meeting.”

Several complaints allege that Stanley wasted money, despite having a clear mandate to cut costs. One highlights the expenditure of $360,000 for a new conference room for Stanley’s use.

Pentagon officials said that this spending was necessary. “The conference room available to Dr. Stanley was two floors away and across the building from his office. He asked for a conference room that was closer,” said Doug Wilson, assistant secretary for public affairs, who said that the new conference room includes videoconferencing equipment.

Before joining the Pentagon’s senior leadership, Stanley spent 33 years in the Marine Corps, retiring in 2002 as a major general. He later served as a senior executive at the University of Pennsylvania and as president of Scholarship America, a nonprofit organization.

When he began work in the department, he rarely interacted with the senior staff, said Bill Carr, a former deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy, although Carr said that consultants hired by Stanley came to see several executives and asked questions about their work.

“I think that working through a filter of contractors reduced the quality of the dialogue between senior staff and the new boss. . . . I would have daily discussions with his predecessors,” Carr said.

Carr said he was designated to run the military personnel program until mid-2011, under a Defense initiative designed to keep key leaders in place to execute plans. Through an assistant, Carr said, Stanley asked him to leave his position in August 2010 and take up another with similar responsibilities, but Carr said he opted to retire instead.

Noel Koch, who headed the wounded warrior program, was asked to step down in April that year. Shortly after his dismissal, Koch told the Associated Press that no explanation was given, although he pressed for one. “No prior indication of dissatisfaction with the work of this office was cited,” he said.

Over the ensuing months, personnel and readiness executives were summoned to meetings and asked to leave or told they were being moved out of their positions.

“There was probably a mandate to make P&R more efficient and more responsive,” said another official on Stanley’s staff who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. “One way of doing that is to fire everybody and lose the institutional knowledge. The more appropriate way is to develop and coach and train and mentor people who weren’t operating in the way they wanted them to.”

The complaints also refer repeatedly to Stanley’s ignorance of the department and an aggressive leadership style. Stanley, some say, is referred to by a nickname he had in the Marines.

“I heard they called him the smiling cobra or another critter from nature,” said Carr. “That’s interesting, but what’s important is his performance as a government official.”

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