Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Retention and Responsibility

So, I have been thinking a lot about retention problems. The Army is having some serious problems with quality retention. I’m not saying that there aren’t a lot of great guys choosing to enlist, but some of the very best are getting out.

Keep in mind, if you will, the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that: employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent. What this really means is that a person who does an absolutely spectacular job as a Battalion Commander (Lieutenant Colonel) is likely to be promoted to Colonel. However, he may be completely mediocre at that new level. He has been promoted just above his best ability. Almost by definition, this must always happen. That is why it is so rare to have truly excellent leaders. Anyone who has been in the Army long enough knows that this Principle is self-evident.

The Army is now facing a curious phenomenon, low and mid-grade leaders are vested with massive responsibilities in the war-zone. Staff Sergeants and Captains are working as mayors, tribal and familial liaisons, and representatives of the United States government. A First Sergeant may be in charge of an entire neighborhood or act as a kind of Solomon figure in local disputes. An E-4 may adjudicate a compensation case as a deciding authority. Wow. Not since the end of World War Two have such leaders held so much responsibility. Also importantly, we have a smaller military now with fewer junior leaders carrying a larger burden.

At what point will this young captain ever again have the same level of trust and responsibility? Probably never. Not even if he were a one-percenter and was promoted to general officer. Who would have thought that a twenty or thirty-something year-old dude could rule as a kind of warrior-king? This may sound dramatic, but trust me that it is/was true and that the responsibility is not taken lightly. Now they return back to garrison and the mendacity of military life. Difficult choices must be made. Some will choose to stay and incorporate lessons learned into doctrine; others will realize that they are capable of much more than they ever imagined; still others will stay in as long as they can deploy and experience this level of responsibility again. Most likely, those who were most successful will be frustrated by the Peter Principle. The very best will likely feel the burn of ambition turn toward the private sector.

Fortunately, I am a big believer in the American way and am confident that these efforts in the private sector will bear fruit. Our private sector is abundant with professionally progressive former military members and is one of the reasons why our economy is so strong. Someone please show me a hippy that can grasp that quality personifies our military personnel. But I digress, what worries me is that the military will find itself filled with the mediocre and inefficient leaders. The Army will survive, but I hope that it doesn’t become the intellectual desert that it was in the 1970s and early 80s.

Okay, okay, maybe I’m an idealist when it comes to military folk, but dammit, I have just seen so many amazing things! Ah well, Semper Gumby (Always Flexible).