Leadership: Taking A Little Off The Top


August 16, 2010: The leadership in the U.S. Department of Defense, faced with sharp budget cuts, is seeking to cut the number (about five percent) of senior officers (generals and admirals). Actually, the  number of these senior officers is not the main problem, but how they are used. For example, during World War II, a lot more technology was adopted by the military, and that required some hard-to-get and expensive talent to supervise development, operation and maintenance. The military can't use cash incentives, but it can offer rank and all the flattery and respect that goes with it.

But another cause for the growing number of senior officers is bureaucratic rot. This is a phenomenon in  all large organizations, be they commercial or government. While lean and efficient when created, organizations tend to grow bloated and less efficient as they increase in size and age. Additional layers of command make it more difficult to get anything done, even for strong willed people at the top of the command pyramid. The Department of Defense was not immune to the disease, and the current management wants to impose a cure.

The historical pattern of growth in senior leadership is quite clear. At the end of the World War II, there were 5,400 troops for each admiral or general. By the end of the Cold War in 1991, there were 3,400 troops for every admiral or general. There are now closer to 3,000 troops for each of these senior officers.

It's not just the generals and admirals. The ratio of all troops to all officers has gone from about ten to one in 1945, to six to one today. This ratio varies from service to service. In the Marines the ratio is 8.8:1, the Navy is close behind at 7:1, trailed by the army's 6.1:1, and the Air Force, with an extraordinarily low ratio of only 4.4:1, just half that of the marines. The low Air Force ratio is due to the large number of pilots and the high proportion of very technical jobs.

The enormous growth in technical jobs, and the difficulty in recruiting and keeping the needed techies, has led to more officer jobs, and cash bonuses for both officers and enlisted personnel in hard to fill slots. Supply and demand keeps these officer jobs, or cash bonuses, in play. Many of the additional admirals and generals are in charge of very technical operations, that require a lot of skill and experience to carry out. Sometimes the military cannot find qualified people to fill these jobs, and just puts in an available general or admiral and hopes for the best. Another problem is that cutting positions for admirals and generals is complicated by the fact that these are the men (and, increasingly, women) who make the decisions about who gets cut. So this effort to cut the fat in the senior ranks will get interesting. Leadership and management issues aside, the bean counters know that each senior officer position eliminated will save several million dollars. The salary and benefits for the senior officer is only a small part of this. The big expense is for the staff, fringe benefits and office space required to show the proper respect. But it’s not just about money, it's about leadership, and sometimes less is more.






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