In his recent book Bleeding Talent, Tim Kane joins a growing chorus of serving and former junior officers to deliver a wake-up call to today's military leadership in the face of a major drawdown. Their message: 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.
The military bureaucracy's response? "Good Riddance."
During any military drawdown, equipment, training, force structure, and end-strength will inevitably be sacrificed. But the "crown jewel" that must be preserved in order to be able to fight and win in the years ahead is human capital. Recruiting and retaining highly talented people remains the best guarantor of success in future conflicts. No distant campaign against a wily and unpredictable enemy in the 21st century will be won without innovative and creative military leadership. And that leadership is most at risk in the coming thinning of the military's rolls. And the officer corps most of all.
A colleague told me of a recent meeting with a roomful of senior generals in which he outlined the looming "talent drain," highlighting the prospect that the most exceptional officers will flee the force in droves over the next five years. Their response echoed the one I hear all too often from both active and retired generals: "If they want to leave the team, we'd be better off without them."
In no business enterprise would the large-scale loss of an organization's top performers be greeted with such indifference. In fact, given the likely impact of such losses on any firm's bottom line, corporate chieftains would likely soon be looking for new jobs themselves if they dismissed their responsibility for managing their best talent. In today's competitive and uncertain environment, any company that loses its top talent will go out of business.
But in the military, not so much.
With more people than it needs as budgets shrink, and no management redlines to alert service leaders to the loss of their best young leadership, the military simply assumes there will always be more than enough talent to go around. Managing decreasing numbers becomes more important than fighting to retain the best manpower. And a "so what" attitude among senior military leaders toward the loss of highly skilled talent is seen as acceptable, a bravado that is often encouraged by those who "stayed on the team" through previous drawdowns. After all, many of today's generals think, "As junior officers, we stayed while others left, and we've made out just fine." Plenty of talent will stay, as it always has. Why worry?
There can be no more deadly, pernicious outlook from current or former senior leaders. It conveys a fundamentally flawed message to the military's young leaders that individuals don't count, that talent doesn't matter, and that even in the hyper-competitive world of the 21st century, in the U.S. military, "parts is parts." This outlook has the potential for deadly consequences as end-strength plunges.
Secretary Bob Gates challenged the Army in a February 2011 speech at West Point to change in order to retain and empower the kinds of leaders it will need for the 21st century. Gates observed: "[The] greatest challenge facing your Army and my main worry [is]: How can the Army break up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most battle-tested young officers to lead the service in the future?" Cadets cheered, junior officers were encouraged, and the bureaucracy changed not at all.
Two years later, the worry described by Gates remains -- while the primary response from the military services has most often been silence and a denial of the problem. As I've noted before, and as Gates pointed out in his West Point speech, the Army (and military writ large) is competing for talent with Google -- not a 1950s widget factory. And it is going to start losing, dramatically.
It does not have to be so. There is no reason not to listen and respond to the concerns of younger officers -- while also fully meeting the needs of the service. But you can't do it with a World War II mindset, an insular outlook, or an Industrial Age 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.