Leadership: Punishing Bad Generals


September 29, 2008:Eight U.S. Air Force and Army generals have been punished for a shipping error two years ago. The error sent four electronic components for nuclear warheads to Taiwan (where they were expecting some helicopter batteries.) None of the generals (ranging in rank from one to three star) lost their jobs, but this black mark on their records will hurt their promotion prospects (badly) and possibly the size of their pension. This last item has to do with what rank a general retires at. Generals often have "temporary" promotions that do not extend to retirement (where you are paid according to your lower, or "permanent rank.) Generals with good records are allowed to retire at their temporary rank.

Such paper punishments (meaning a letter of criticism goes into their personnel file) are bad enough, but the brass were so incensed at this screw up, involving nuclear weapons, that firing one or more of the generals was considered. Why all this fuss? Maintaining efficiency and discipline among the senior leadership is considered the mark of an effective force. There's always a temptation for the brass to go easy on each other when there's a problem. And that does happen. But it's a sign that the senior leadership is more willing to do their job, than extend a professional courtesy, when punishments are handed out. Of course, there's more of a temptation to do nothing when the screw up is not made public. But keeping these things secret is more and more difficult, especially because of the Internet, and the ease with which one can let the word out.

On the other hand, generals and admirals are not punished as severely now as in the past. As recently as World War II, generals could be executed for screwing up. And the British Royal Navy once famously executed an admiral (who wasn't trying hard enough), mainly to encourage the other admirals.


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