‘Bleeding Talent’

by Veronique de Rugy

At a time when defense spending and the Department of Defense are likely to be the focus of many debates, this book by the Hudson Institute’s economist Tim Kane called Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution seems rather timely. The New York Times’ Fred Andrews gives us some insights into Kane’s findings about the way the military manages its talents:

[Kane] looks at today’s military and sees suppressed entrepreneurs among officers and enlisted ranks alike. “America’s armed forces are a leadership factory,” he writes, saying that former military officers are three times as likely to become corporate C.E.O.’s as their raw numbers would suggest.

In surveying recent West Point graduates, he found that only 7 percent believed that most of the best officers remained in the military. It is not the combat, the low pay or the pull of family life that is the top reason they quit in surprising numbers, Mr. Kane writes, but rather the “frustration with military bureaucracy.” One study found that young officers left because they wanted a sense of control over their careers. In short, they wanted what the rest of us want.

The exodus of young officers means that promotion to lieutenant colonel is taken for granted in a career trajectory. Yet the step beyond colonel, to general, is subject to a rigid and stultifying screen. A thousand colonels a year are considered; only 35 or 40 make the cut, he says. The mavericks, the innovators who rock the boat, usually do not.

ACCORDING to Mr. Kane, “the root of all evil in this ecosystem” is the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, enacted by Congress in 1980 to standardize military personnel policies. But the system has defied efforts by successive defense secretaries to bring about change.

That act binds the military into a system that honors seniority over individual merit. It judges officers, hundreds at a time, in an up-or-out promotion process that relies on evaluations that have been almost laughably eroded by grade inflation. A zero-defect mentality punishes errors severely. The system discourages specialization — you can’t expect to stay a fighter jock or a cybersecurity expert — and pushes the career-minded up a tried-and-true ladder that, not surprisingly, produces lookalikes.

The whole thing is here. It seems like an interesting marriage between two of Kane’s areas of interests: entrepreneurship and the military. 

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