By "Si Syphus"
Best Defense junior officer panel
"Let's get ready to RUMBLE!" I can just picture
announcing the upcoming "prize fight."
In the blue corner stands Lt. Gen. (R) David Barno and in the red corner stands
Lt. Gen Fredrick ‘Ben' Hodges. The main event: Are we losing talent in today's Army?
Reading the differences between senior leaders
is quite hilarious. I would equate it to watching two dudes argue about (insert
sports teams here), in an alcohol-induced stupor, less the possibility of
violence. Both bring up valid points, yet one uses "how they see the facts" to
support their argument. However, no matter who is right and who wrong, what is
lost in translation is the actual premise of the argument -- in this case
junior leaders -- and nothing is done to rectify the situation. The end result
is an epic 12-round bout with a split decision resulting in a draw, and a
re-match likely on the horizon in a couple of years.
Lt. Gen. (R) Barno's "Military
Brain Drain" echoes the position of Tim Kane's Bleeding Talent,
stating that "if you ignore the expectations of today's young,
combat-experienced leaders as you shrink the force, your most talented officers
and sergeants will exit, stage left." Both Barno and Kane lament protecting the
"crown jewel" of talented junior leaders is required for future success.
On the other hand, Lt.
Gen. Hodges disagrees with Barno's supposition that there is
a "brain drain" in the Army based on four main points: 1) junior officers are doing
good things deployed, 2) there are "broadening" opportunities, 3) what his
peers have to say, and 4) senior leader examples.
My response, for what it's worth:
Round One: Yes,
junior leaders are doing exceptional things while deployed. That is because
there is "freedom of maneuver." Problems are complex and our junior leaders are
excelling with the opportunity to demonstrate their innovativeness,
adaptability, and unique ability to solve the complex issues. However, when
these junior leaders come home, this ability is stymied due to the fact of not
being at war. The "garrison" Army was, is, and will continue to be a polar
opposite to war-time. Junior leaders, ones that currently have less than 12
years of service, know absolutely NOTHING about "garrison." We are
operationally minded, doing one of three things: prepare to deploy, deploy,
recover. This has been the cycle, but that is about to change. Bottom line: There
is not enough money or incentives in the world that will be able to keep 100
percent of the targeted group to stay in the Army, unless there is a change.
Round Two: Lt. Gen.
Hodges mentions various things that the Army is offering to junior leaders --
"the best and most expensive" universities, fellowships, and training with
industry. Let's be honest, all of these things are pretty cool and the fact
that it is an option, also pretty cool. However, let's be realistic. The Army
has the Olmstead Scholarship -- one per year. Congressional fellowships -- 25
per year. Advanced civil schooling -- a generous figure would be 400 per year.
A realistic amount of junior leaders receiving this "broadening" any given year
would be about 600. However, when applying for these opportunities, a junior
leader is grouped with a total of about three year groups' worth, or about
6,000 other people. So this "broadening" is available to about 10 percent of
junior leaders. If the target is to retain the "top 20 percent" and this is all
the incentive, then we are falling short. Don't get me wrong, this is a good
start. But let's not use this as the be-all end-all answer to saying quality
junior leaders are not leaving. This is more of a "look what we are going to
keep some of the talent."
If you have sipped the green Kool-Aid and are
immersed in current Army rhetoric, now might be a good time to stop reading.
Otherwise, you might berate me as a junior leader who doesn't know shit.
The following two examples are used by Lt. Gen.
Hodges to support his argument that I take issue with the most:
Round Three: Lt. Gen.
Hodges starts his argument saying he is "disappointed" in Barno's position
because it is not something he sees or hears in his "dealings with senior Army
leaders" or his peers. (Ok, I am going to believe it now because a bunch of
crusty old men are saying it's not true. Sure.) I'm pretty sure this is the
whole "group think" mentality we are trying to go away from. What about
"outside the box" thinking? Apparently this only applies to junior leaders.
What do other senior leaders and other generals know about why junior leaders
are staying in? I got an idea: How about asking them and not your peers.
Lt. Gen. Hodges also claims that Barno's
comments about the best leaving are "an insult to the thousands staying." Not
the case. I stayed, and I'm not insulted. Lt. Gen. (R) Barno or Tim Kane never
referred to me as "not talented" because I chose to stay. I understand where
they are coming from when they point out the facts that quality junior leaders
have left up to this point (true) and quality junior leaders will continue to
leave until this situation is rectified (also true). I'm not drinking the
Kool-Aid and buying into a senior leader telling me I should be insulted for
something that is the truth. I'm also not buying it just because a bunch of
them are saying it.
Round Four: The
justification I most take exception to is the "this worked for me" approach.
"Senior Army leaders
have emphasized this repeatedly and are setting an example by doing it
themselves. My own experience validates this. In 33-plus years of service and
about 25 different duty positions, there were only two times when I ended up in
a duty position I had specifically requested or pursued. Every other assignment
was the result of personal intervention of commanders, mentors, or some senior
leader in the span of my career who wanted to invest in me and prepare me for
greater challenges. That has been my experience- indeed, that is the norm I
have witnessed for over three decades- and it's the legacy I have tried to pass
This statement is
what is wrong with our current Army and exactly the premise that Barno and Kane
are using to explain the exodus of talented junior leaders. Just because this
worked for Lt. Gen. Hodges does not mean that it will work for all current
junior leaders or for that fact even the majority. While this style might have
worked for Lt. Gen. Hodges's three decades of service (20 of which were
predominantly during times of peace), this should not be the direction of the
The Army currently is
structured in such a way that in order to be successful, you have to meet
certain "gates" at certain times. If you don't meet them, no matter how much
talent you possess, you are considered "at-risk" for advancement, as well as
ineligible for any of the extra incentives Lt. Gen. Hodges invoked. Likewise,
it doesn't matter who you are, if you checked the right block at the right
time, then you are good to go. Hypothetically speaking here, what is wrong with
a captain who doesn't want to be a commander but makes a great intelligence
officer, signal officer, or whatever staff position? If he or she had the
opportunity to continue as a staff officer, he or she could be an integral
component of the team. Why must that individual be a commander, where he or she
might not excel, just to be eligible for promotion?
Let's take an example
of two Army captains. In this example, all things are equal. They are in the
same year group and have the exact same jobs. Captain #1 has been stationed at
Ft. Hood (heavy) for 3 years, and wouldn't mind staying for another 3 years.
Captain #2 has been stationed at Ft. Drum (light) for 3 years and really wants
to go to Ft. Bragg (also light). Captain #1 receives orders for Ft. Bragg
because he doesn't have light experience. Captain #2 receives orders for Ft.
Hood because he doesn't have heavy experience. Why is it not possible for the
two to switch and be happy? Well, it has been determined that in order for both
to be successful, they need to be diverse. The outcome of this scenario: two
disgruntled junior leaders who might end up deciding to get out. On the other
hand, had the opportunity presented itself to get what they both wanted, both might
Nowadays people want
stability over anything else, especially as we begin to emerge from a decade at
war. I would venture to say that this is the driving factor over anything else
on one's decision to "stay or go." Being obligated to pick up and move
(children are deep-rooted at a school and/or a spouse is well-established in a
career) just to check the block for promotion presents an officer with an
undesirable choice. Nobody should fault that individual for choosing to get out
-- that is, putting family first.
Rather than argue and maintain a stubborn
mindset that there is nothing wrong, or that the Army is better off without the
junior officers who choose to leave, my first recommendation is that current
Army senior leaders LISTEN to what Barno and Kane are saying on the subject.
Barno said it perfectly in his 13 February "Military Brain Drain" article:
There is no reason
not to listen and respond to the concerns of younger officers -- while also
fully meeting the needs of service. But you can't do it with a World War II
mindset, an insular outlook, or an industrial aged personnel system- all of
which are markedly in evidence today. And in the coming years, throwing money
at the problem is not likely to be as easy as in the past.
The decision: Talk to junior leaders and find
out what THEY want. Continuing down the current path won't "break" the Army;
however, it certainly will hinder it for future generations.
Syphus" is the company-grade officer sitting just a few desks away from you. Go
ask him what he thinks.