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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