By Tim Kane
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
288 pp. $30
In the Chairman’s Strategic Direction to the Joint Force, General Martin Dempsey states that “In the years to come, our Joint Force will face several challenging transitions. We will transition from war. . . . We will transition from abundant to constrained resources. And, many Service members—and their families—will transition into civilian life. Any one of these would be difficult. All three together will test our leadership at every level.”
In the midst of this leadership test comes a book with the intriguing titleBleeding Talent: How the U.S. Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution. In it, author Tim Kane claims that now is the time for a change from the current rigid, coercive personnel system to a more flexible, free market–based approach to ensure that we retain the very best military leaders.
Kane quickly establishes his credentials on this topic as a concerned veteran, entrepreneur, and economist. After leaving the Air Force, he reflected on his own experiences, on those of fellow veterans, and on a West Point speech in which then–Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that the greatest challenge facing the Army is its personnel bureaucracy. Kane laments that, in his view, “all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than a cutting-edge meritocracy” (p. 10).
To quantify these assertions, the author surveyed networks of 1989–2004 West Point graduates to understand the issue in greater detail. As an example of survey results, only 6 percent believed that the personnel system “does a good job retaining the best leaders,” and only 32 percent believed the system “does a good job of weeding out the weakest leaders” (p. 15).
As a result of the survey, Kane concludes that the Services’ use of market-based forces in the all-volunteer force (AVF) policy is effective at attracting innovative leaders. However, those leaders are then immediately subjected to a centrally planned, coercive personnel system to retain and advance them. It is this centrally managed system that eventually drives out some of the best talent. His proposal is to extend AVF’s market-based approach into a career-long personnel system that he calls the Total Volunteer Force.
It would be easy to discount the notion of a market-based personnel system until we consider the dynamic that the current cadre of officers is now steeped in. The book quotes Army War College Professor Lenny Wong: “In today’s Army, many junior officers . . . confronted with complexity, unpredictability, and ambiguity in a combat environment . . . learn . . . to adapt, to innovate, and to operate with minimal guidance” (pp. 54–55). This operational environment is diametrically opposed to the current personnel environment. The fear is that the best leaders will leave rather than be subjected to the current system.
Kane interestingly points out that today’s system would not support a Robert E. Lee (an engineer) to lead an Army or a Joshua Chamberlain (a college professor) to lead a regiment (pp. 66–67). He also provides the reader a list of names of entrepreneurial leaders (characterized by innovation, openness to opportunity, and decisiveness in uncertainty) who he believes would not survive in the current personnel system: Chester Nimitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Billy Mitchell, and John Boyd, to name a few.
The author effectively uses a chronology of the 20th century to lead the reader to an understanding of how this system has become so centralized and rigid. He begins by showing how Secretary of War Elihu Root employed the unskilled industrial labor methods of his time to form a professional army. He follows by describing how Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara centralized authorities in the 1960s. Kane culminates with an example of how today’s computerized personnel system “optimally designates 15,000 officers [to careers fields] . . . in less than 10 seconds” (p. 120).
Kane’s alternative model deserves a much more extensive reading, but here briefly is his foundation: give commanders conditional hiring authority; end the use of seniority (known as year groups) as the sole basis for job selection and promotion, but instead broaden the scope to always find the best candidates regardless of year group; and, ultimately, give commanders greater authority in determining compensation, deployments, promotions, and evaluations (pp. 136–141). The author ends his discussion by advocating 360-degree feedback as an essential element (an antidote to toxic leaders) to ensure that the best and brightest rise to the top.
I agree with the notion that those who have served in the military would embrace a much more adaptive personnel system. Change would require real leadership to assess, adapt, and overcome the institutional inertia of a system with a century’s worth of investment. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. The rapid constraining of defense resources and the quickly changing international defense environment require that we adapt now to ensure that we retain the best leaders and not simply retain officers by the seniority-based methods of the past. If we do proceed down this path, change would also require great care. For example, cultivating a small cadre of disruptive innovators is essential in any thriving organization but having too many can have tragic effects.
I also agree with Kane’s notion of supporting talented leaders who find themselves outside of accepted career tracks. They fall into two groups. To cultivate talented leaders who remain on Active duty, we need a program that would identify and shepherd them in a new separate career field–like environment. To cultivate those who traditionally leave Active duty, we need a program to allow a few to freely flow among various established career paths, academia, and even industry (modeled on the Individual Mobilization Augmentee program). The target of both is to capture unique talent when it is in the best interest of the Service without sidelining them from progression.
Ensuring that the joint force retains and promotes the best leaders to meet the challenges facing us will test leadership. Kane provides one possible pathway to get us there by unleashing market-based forces. Bleeding Talent is a thought-provoking call to arms. This book and its bibliography should be required reading for anyone attempting to assess and implement change with the goal of establishing a truly adaptive personnel system conducive to these challenging times.JFQ