Don Vandergriff: The US Army’s Poor Leadership — How Did It Get So Bad?

Ethics, Military
Don Vandergriff

How did the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad?

Summary:  The US spends $600 billion on the US military (narrowly defined; almost a trillion broadly), yet repeatedly fails to defeat our poorly trained and equipped foes. In this chapter of our series asking “why”, Don Vandergriff points to ways the Army selects and promotes officers (its problems are usually about people; seldom about hardware).  Tomorrow he discusses solutions.

Vandergriff (Major, Army, retired) is a long-time co-author on the FM website and one of America’s foremost experts on ways to reform the military’s personnel systems. See his bio here.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Seeing leadership as Chess: it’s a path to defeat.

The US military has a leadership problem. It’s visible in the deterioration of soldiers’ confidence in the leaders, shown by the 2014 Military Times survey asking 2,300 active-duty soldiers about their lives. Over only 5 years their answer grew much darker.

There is much more evidence. Such as “Pentagon investigations point to military system that promotes abusive leaders” (WaPo, 28 Jan 2014). This article in the Jan-Feb 2013 Military Review made waves: “Narcissism and Toxic Leaders“, Joe Doty (Lt. Colonel, US Army, Retired) and Jeff Fenlason (Master Sergeant, US Army). Also see these two posts about the recent scandals in the officer corps: looking at the scandals and asking why so many.

There is a lot happening in the Army’s culture below the visible surface.

A diagnosis of the problem

I have been writing since 1999 that the Army — in fact, all the services — has an antiquated personnel system, the deep cause of their many disparate problems.

Our military uses processes bred in the age of Frederick Taylor and adopted after WWII (circa 1947). Our military leaders built a force capable of rapid large-scale mobilization (as we did in WWII), broad in experiences but shallow in professionalism. To run it they created an officer corps of industrial-age managers. Leadership not required; the opposite what German’s leaders did in the 19th century after their defeat by Napoleon.

Since then these processes have become institutionalized. Today nobody in Human Resources Command or G1 (Personnel) knows their origin or purpose. It’s just the way they run.

Another leadership model that loses.

The Army spends much effort cheering about their greatness. If they were so good their actions would speak so loudly to make boasts unnecessary. But our failed wars since 9/11 show a different Army than the one our leaders see in the mirror.

Our military leaders believe they are great and so have no need to change. They listen to their boasts return amplified in the media echo chamber. They’re dazzled by the money they deploy, roughly 1/3 of the world’s military spending (narrowly defined; most of the rest is spent by our allies). Our perceived superiority has become our greatest obstacle to growth. Too bad our foes are unimpressed, and so win in places from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The four pillars of our Army

Today’s Army culture rests on four pillars. All over 60 years old; all rest on out of date assumptions about managing human talent.

1. A giant officer corps.

A heavier than necessary officer corps leaves junior officers little time to gain experience leading troops. Average time as a platoon leader is 6 – 12 months. Command assignments are 12 – 15 months (two in 24 months, if one is so lucky). Combined arms teams are very complicated. Such short terms are mad, commanding only long enough to gain some competence just as they leave. The Army has too many officers rotating through the limited number of command openings.

The Number of Officers per 100 enlisted personnel: 1901-2013

The Number of Officers per 100 enlisted: 1901-2013Star Creep“, Third Way, 7 January 2013

2. A top heavy officer corps.

George C. Marshall knew we were lucky in WWII. We had allies and stupid Axis strategic decisions that bought us the time we need to prepare (There were 17 thousand Marines in 1935). Rather than rely on luck for the next war, after WWII the Army’s leaders (Marshall, Ike, Bradley, etc) said we needed a larger than necessary officer corps, especially at the top, for mobilization against Soviet Union or China or both. Next time we might not have years to expand.

The result is an Army built to keep all these officers busy. Such as redundant HQs that produce vast amounts of often-trivial information up the chain of command while generating trivial tasks for subordinates to keep staffs and senior leaders busy.

We get an army that cannot defeat our actual foes, essentially militia led by small numbers of lightly trained officers.

3. An officer evaluation system built for businesses.

We have a state-of-the art in 1947 check-the-box evaluation system built on an equally flawed one. In 1936 the US Army attaché to the Germany unfavorably compared the US Army’s evaluation systems to theirs – based on essays by superior officers of their subordinates’ characters (especially the willingness and ability to seek and accept responsibility).

Why don’t officers write an essay on their subordinates? The Army believes most officers cannot write, and such evaluations would be too subjective. So we have 20 captains in a brigade evaluated by one Colonel based on his observations, expressed in checking one of four blocks. Words are meaningless; only the block counts.

4. A centralized selection and promotion system.

The Defense Science Board’s 2010 Summer Study on Enhancing Adaptability of U.S. Military Forces stated that the personnel system was the biggest obstacle to adaptability in the Armed Services. While most major corporations as well as the most successful armies in history had decentralized boards and promotions approaches, the US has stuck with an out of date Industrial Age personnel management system.

Board members evaluate stacks of papers — 30 seconds for each — to select and promote people who are most like them. Due to the large number of officers, anything but a perfect evaluation can side-track an officer. In the German Army at its peak, officers regarded perfect files with suspicion. Leaders with strength of character will inevitably anger people when doing the right thing.

The Germans also relied on examinations that combined essays and problem solving exercises. Our Army doesn’t do so because it reduces senior officers’ discretionary power to promote people, much like the patronage-based government bureaucracies in the late 1800s — before the reforms that created the modern (and far more effective) civil service systems.

See the next post, in which Don discusses what the Army’s doing to reform itself, and the more powerful steps it could take.

About the author

See the bio of Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) on the FM authors’ page.


Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.

See Also:

Don Vandergriff @ Phi Beta Iota

Financial Liberty at Risk-728x90