The U.S. military is one of America’s premier leadership factories. But the product it manufactures is in decline.
Seven years ago, the number of young officers willing to recommit after their initial tours of duty dropped precipitously. Before the Iraq war, three-quarters of Army officers stayed for a career, a number that dropped to just two-thirds starting in 2006. The broken pipeline was initially blamed on the sputtering war effort in Iraq, but in fact the problem is a deep-rooted one. The Army has bled talent for decades, a consequence of a deeply dysfunctional organization that poorly matches jobs with talent and doesn’t trust its officers to make choices about their own careers.
The solution, however, isn’t beyond reach. The next step in the evolution of the Pentagon’s leadership system should be what I call a “total volunteer force”—one that treats officers as human capital with autonomy rather than as physical capital in inventory.
Let me explain. The retention crisis, even in an era of cutbacks and sequestration, is a decades-long dilemma that the military doesn’t often talk about. The Senate investigated the “critical and delicate” problem of a military brain drain as far back as 1954, after President Eisenhower called for Congressional action. Yet after public attention flared following a 2011 survey of junior officers, retired U.S. Army general Frederick Kroesen mocked the issue in the publication ARMY, declaring that “no other profession has developed better ways to identify, develop and reward its leaders.”
There is at least one top military leader who will talk about the problem. In a farewell address to the cadets of West Point in Feb. 2011, former secretary of defense Robert Gates, admired for his service under Presidents Bush and Obama, expressed his frustration. He wondered how the Army “can break up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most-battled tested young officers?”
Sec. Gates understood something that neither the Army nor its critics do. Critics like to think that the most talented young leaders simply leave, whereas many generals refuse to admit any problem exists. The real problem is that the talent is bleeding inside the organization. High quit rates are just a symptom of the deeper problem that too many military members are mis-matched with their jobs.
In truth, military officers are only volunteers for one day: the day they sign up. Afterwards, they’re treated with the same kind of inflexible, coercive management that has defined militaries since history began. No electronic “job boards” list openings for the thousands of available jobs in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. No junior officers know where their next job assignment will be, or if it will fit with their interests, strengths and talents. And no commanders are trusted to directly hire the subordinates they feel their teams need.