Small Wars Journal

Will We Ever Stop Bleeding Talent?

Thu, 08/22/2013 - 9:58am

Will We Ever Stop Bleeding Talent? An interview with Tim Kane by Roxanne Bras at Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.

Despite advocating for reform, Tim Kane does not think it is likely, at least in the near future. For one, Kane was not exactly embraced by the bureaucracy he critiqued; he has not received any formal invitations from any of the military services to elaborate on his work.  While Kane has little hope for large-scale reform, he is more optimistic when it comes to the possibility of incremental change, and predicts that the military’s retirement policy will be the first to reform.  (The Military Retirement Modernization Committee has already analyzed proposals, such as shortening the minimum time requirement.)

While I am similarly skeptical of the likelihood of large-scale reform, two contemporary conditions, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and budgetary constraints, favor the reformists.



Fri, 08/23/2013 - 6:14am

In reply to by Bill M.


One 'simple' solution would be to get Congress to create the US Defense Force (USDF). The USDF Act would mandate 2/3 of the bureaucracy and 2/3 of O-10s to O-7s to be axed. Also for the chop half of all O6s to O4s and and 1/3 of the remainder.

All hardware that duplicated the merged forces' capability (both existing and proposed) would be mothballed or cancelled.

Congress can cite lack of success in foreign wars since 1945 as the reason for a more existential focus for the USDF.

Those who need to see what a long-term lack of success looks like can visit the Koreans who live in the northern half of their country. Those who want to see more recent failure know where to look.

Those good souls remaining in the new lean mean USDF machine all get a 15% pay rise.

No sweat,


Bill M.

Fri, 08/23/2013 - 3:56am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Getting rid of toxic leaders in theory should be easy to do, but as we know it seldom happens. I agree toxic leadership does drive out a lot of good people (enlisted and officers), but this article focused on the inertia and ineffectivenss of the personnel system. The ineffectiveness of this system also drives a lot of good people out of the ranks who no desire to follow the prescribed career development path. As for some behaviors resulting in an automatic removal from the ranks, I actually think we over do that in many cases. That is called a zero defect mentality, and good officers learn over time (mistakes are a form of instruction). While other behaviors have little to do with their ability to serve and lead unless they're repeat offenders, such as getting a DUI or getting got up in a fling. I have known a lot of good officers who were kicked out for this, and the Army is lesser for it. Obviously if they're a habitual drunk or conducting sexual harassment that is another matter, but that isn't what we're talking about. Carl made a point below about Nimitz running his ship aground. GEN Powell made mistakes as a junior officer, and the list goes on.

Select comments below is why I think this article focused on the personnel system, and not toxic leadership:

"The current model may send the captain best suited for Baghdad to southern Afghanistan and vice versa, underutilizing the talents of both."

"In addition to the misallocation of talent, Kane thinks the military’s current system too quickly rotates commanders through positions. Kane said, “You can’t even tell an Eisenhower after one year…the notion that everyone gets a turn hurts national security.”"

"Kane thinks that the one-size-fits-all system is detrimental because, “everyone has to pretend they want to be chief of staff.” By this, Kane means that the system of up-or-out promotion forces people to continue to rotate through key developmental positions, regardless of whether or not they actually have an interest in these positions."

"the military’s talent management system is his argument that today’s threats look different from those of 1950, when the military’s talent management system was built. Kane believes the threat environment has fundamentally changed, and thus, that the military’s officer development and promotion system should do the same."


Thu, 08/22/2013 - 11:56pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Nimitz ran his ship aground.

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 08/22/2013 - 11:30pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I typed out a long comment, but decided to pare it down to this: The answer isn't in fast-tracking or massive reworks of our personnel system (although it would be nice if that happened). The answer is for the leadership to get serious about rooting out the toxic and incompetent leaders that drive people out of the military. Even this is a pipe dream, but you need no special incentives or entitlements if you have good leaders who keep their people engaged in meaningful endeavors. And no amount of money or special perks will keep talented people languishing under petty tyrants. We need to get better at "gray area" firings (or at least firing from leadership positions). We're good at black and white (sorta, in most cases, when people are looking): you get a DUI, you get caught in hanky-panky, you run a ship around, etc. What we don't do is put toxic leaders on the first thing smoking out of command or key leadership billets when the warning signs start to crop up. Oh, they're "entitled" to their command or their retirement or they've given this much of their life or we can just wait them out. Nonsense. You want to start to treat the talent problem, get serious about getting untalented people out of leadership positions.

Overall a good article that is generally on target. Like most articles that identify what most would consider obvious problems with our personnel management (largely borrowed from the business world) system is that it is light on "feasible" recommendations for fixing it. It is a system influenced by multiple other systems in and outside of DOD, so change recommandations will face numerous points of opposition. That doesn't mean it shouldn't change, but if someone or a group is serious about fixing it, then it requires understanding it first and then coming up with feasible recommendations.

It needs to be pointed out that up to 30% of the officers not selected for the fast track are not selected for good reason, yet if you talk to them they'll be the first to tell you that the military is bleeding talent because they didn't get what they want. That is worth keeping in perspective. The problem does exist, it is real, but one needs to be able to delineate those who deservely didn't get what they wanted and those that are exceptionally talented and should have been selected and weren't.

This article was directed at our senior offficers, but bad processes and systems have a way of spreading. In Special Forces we significantly hurt our NCO Corp when SF NCOs were forced to punch tickets and Team Sergeants (always the core of SF) were limited to 2 years of ODA time as a Team Sergeant, then time to move onto punch tickets elsewhere, compared to Team Sergeants often having more than 5 years in that position. Not to be out done Special Forces Warrant Officers decided they needed a management system that paralleled the officer corps with the appropriate ticket punches, instead of allowing guys to pursue and stay in positions that they're good in and enjoy (that often goes together), and most importantly positions where they can make significant contributions to national security.

SOCOM is trying to improve its personnel talent management, but it is largely controlled by the services (large bureaucracies), so it will be an uphill fight, but one well worth winning.