Leadership: January 15, 2001


Where Have All the Good Officers Gone?; Junior army officers who are quitting in large numbers. One theory is that there is a generation gap between the "Baby Boomer" generals (born before 1964) and the twenty and thirty something junior officers (Generation X, or Y) who are packing it in. The Boomer generals are accused of micromanagement, leaving the Gen X officers to feel that they are not trusted, or being treated as adults.

Others say that the problem is nothing more than bad leadership, that better generals would earn and keep the loyalty of their junior officers.
Little mentioned is another culprit; Victory Disease. This is an ancient, and still present, condition seen in armed forces that have not fought a war for a while, but did well the last time out. The symptoms are the same ones; junior officers, NCOs and troops are complaining about today. Too much supervision, fear of taking risks and emphasis on appearing perfect and ready for combat. 

There are many historical examples, and they all will sound familiar. In the 18th century, Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, created a remarkably efficient army and led it in a string of striking victories. After Frederick died, his successors tried to keep the army sharp. But when they ran up against Napoleon two decades later, they were blown off the battlefield. Frederick's successors were trying to maintain the form of Frederick's army, but not the substance. Much attention was being made to lining up the troops precisely, even to using surveying instruments to get it just right. Fast forward to the 1980s and the Red Army. The Russians had forged a world class army in World War II and beaten the Germans. But by 1980s, old soldiers were complaining that the old "warrior spirit" was missing and replaced with nonsense like using surveying instruments to line up the troops on maneuvers. Shortly thereafter the Red Army had a very embarrassing time of it in Afghanistan and Chechnya. 

The 1991 Gulf War left us with a particularly nasty version of the Victory Disease. The low casualty rate caused politicians (although not the general public) to avoid casualties at all costs. As happened many times in the past, victory brought with it a smaller defense budget and poor promotion prospects for officers. So, naturally, many more able officers got out. The ones left behind were less capable, confident and more inclined to be very, very careful. 

Appearances become very important, more important than effectiveness. 
Perhaps worst of all, no one wants to admit that this is the problem. Oh, you'll hear comments in the Officers Club about officers who were, "great, first rate, but he got out." The hot shots who stay in begin to feel unwelcome. This is made worse by the way the military promotes officers. The US Army, in 1972, centralized all officer promotions. Promotion boards at the Pentagon looked at the paper record of candidates. This was supposed to be "more fair" and "efficient." It may have been that, but the policy had a disastrous downside. Before 1972, local commanders had a lot of influence on who got promoted and would try and collect competent officers about them. This is an ancient practice, and the bedrock of every battlefield success. Just as central economic planning did not work in the communist countries, so did centralized promotion fail to take into account the initiative and on the scene perceptions of local commanders. The centralized promotions destroyed the effectiveness of mentoring. Commanders got strangers instead of officers they had mentored for years and knew well. The lack of mentoring also destroyed the loyalty junior officers had to commanders they knew, before 1972, could aid their careers in return for good work. Now, an officers' career was decided by which boxes where checked off on their annual OERs (Officer Efficiency Reports.) Before too long, junior officers realized that unless they maxed every OER, they would lose out. No one could afford any mistakes, or offend their commanders. Because promotions were based on a paper record, officers were eager to "get their ticket punched" as often as possible. Assignments were sought not for what the officer could do for the army or their professional education, but for how that assignment would look on their record. Get a good job, don't make waves (a bad OER) and get your ticket punched. 

Ticket punching existed before 1972, but a good commander looked for officers with character and ability, not a well punched ticket. After 1972, all that counted was the paper record. But as long as the army could attract and keep good officers, the good ones would make their way up the ranks despite the malevolent personnel policies. But once the post-Cold War promotion prospects dried up, the more talented officers looked for better prospects on the outside.

The American armed forces has always managed, after World War II, to attract good officer material. Despite the cutbacks and centralized promotions, many good ones stayed in. But even the generals woke up and noticed recently when an increasing percentage of these junior officers began to get out after five or ten years. Blaming it on a generation gap or overwork misses the point. The problem is Victory Disease made worse by poor leadership, and how leaders are selected. The worst aspect of this is that most of the senior officers are the product of a very flawed promotion system. It's a problem that took decades to get where it is today, and it will take a lot of time and effort to make it right. So far, no one in uniform can even agree on what the problem is, much less what solution will work. You'll see the results the next time there's a war. 


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