We don’t reward top military performers—and it’s costing us

November 9, 2011

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on fixes that could help attract, develop and retain better military leaders.

Imagine you are the CEO of a major American corporation. One of your executives, who is responsible for operations in, say, Kansas, is a phenom. By every metric and every subjective measure, he is clearly in the top percentile of leadership within your company. He is just the sort of executive who might one day sit in your seat.

Well, you didn’t get to be CEO by ignoring talent or failing to reward it. You have an interest in encouraging your hot-shot to stay with the firm, and you also have an obligation to your own bottom line. If this wunderkind is so good in Kansas, it stands to reason that he could provide the same profitable results for your shareholders on a larger scale. Based on these considerations, you decide to make him manager of all Midwestern operations.

Now imagine that you are not a CEO, but a senior leader in the United States armed forces. Faced with a comparable situation—instead of a statewide manager, our hotshot is now an infantry company commander achieving remarkable success in Afghanistan—your options are far more limited. In fact, you are prohibited by both policy and regulation from exercising anything near the flexibility available to your private sector counterpart. This is the case despite the fact that your firm’s wages are uncompetitive compared to what top performers could earn elsewhere, and that you demand sacrifices of your leaders and especially of their families far in excess. Most importantly of all, your hands are tied despite the fact your charge is not just to produce the best profit for your shareholders, but to win a war for your country.

Of course, many remarkable officers remain with the military despite the challenges they face, and this is evidence of their patriotism, sense of duty and capacity for sacrifice. Right now there is no current flood of junior or mid-level officers looking to depart the service, as was the case during the dot-com boom. Yet it is nonetheless a fact that top performers are particularly likely to consider, and often exercise, their option to resign long before their usefulness to the service has expired.

Among the reasons for this fact is a promotion system explicitly designed to emphasize fairness and impartiality at the expense of other conceivable goals—rapid reward for top performers, for example. The current system evolved as a corrective to what was widely perceived as a poisonous “good old boys” environment, which prevailed through much of the last century across all of the services. In those days, connections and networking were not everything, but they were far more important than they are today. To know a general or an admiral, and be in his entourage as his career advanced, could trump other factors in that era, occasionally including the important consideration of job performance.

The current system corrects that, and there is much to be said for fairness. We do a good job in the military of, over time, ensuring that the bottom performers do not prevail over average or above-average performers. But perhaps the most glaring flaw of the present system is that we do a poor job of efficiently differentiating between average and above-average performers.

This can be illustrated by returning to our thought experiment. Our top-percentile company commander (who leads, by virtue of his assignment, a few hundred troops) is making tremendous progress in his corner of Afghanistan, and his methods are being held up as a model for success across the theater of war. Operating in valleys on either side of him are two other company commanders. One is doing a decent but unspectacular job, producing results in some categories but failing in others. The other peer is dramatically underperforming, sacrificing progress made by those who preceded him and losing the confidence of his men and superiors.

In our current system, our below-average performer is very unlikely to advance past his peers in the long run, no matter whom he knows. This is a good thing. What is not so good is the distribution of incentives between the average and above-average performers. It would shock our private sector CEO to learn that, as a military leader, the best he could offer his top performer in this situation is a strongly written fitness report, and perhaps a decoration. In the long run this will give the rising star a marginal advantage over his average peer when they are both considered for promotions and increased responsibilities at the exact same time, years in the future.

The services each address this issue in slightly different ways, and some offer more flexibility than others. Gone, however, are the days when Dwight Eisenhower could serve as a lieutenant colonel in the First World War despite holding the permanent rank of captain (and indeed repeat the experience in the Second World War, rapidly advancing several ranks through temporary appointments before his permanent appointment finally caught up with him).

There would be more evil than good attendant to scrapping the current system entirely—fairness and impartiality are, after all, useful and noble guiding principles. We are nonetheless at war. Why not allow accelerated promotions (perhaps even temporary in nature, as General Eisenhower received) based on demonstrated performance in a theater of war, awarded at the discretion of the commanding general or admiral, for up to 5 percent of each officer rank? Why not allow, in extreme cases, officers to skip a rank?

War has an unforgiving way of making performance outputs starkly clear. Reintroducing some flexibility and granting senior commanders more discretion than they currently have in rewarding top performers would help retain the military’s best leaders—and help win the war.

Aaron MacLean is an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps and an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was a platoon commander in Afghanistan in 2009-2010.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s own, and in no way reflect the position of the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

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