Leadership: Why Do Stupid Generals Survive?


May 3, 2011: So far this year, eight navy commanders have been relieved. This continues a trend, in which over two dozen commanders a year have been relieved a year for the last three years. This is a record number of reliefs. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the U.S. Navy has been experiencing a larger number of warship captains getting relieved from command. It's currently over five percent of ship captains a year. At the end of the Cold War, in the late 1980s, the rate was about 3-4 percent a year. So why has the relief rate gone up?

Actually, it's not just the navy. The other services are also seeing a lot more senior commanders getting the axe. There is growing concern that there is something wrong with the way senior commanders are selected. This means that too many unqualified officers are getting promoted to commands they cannot handle.

There appears to be a number of reasons for this, some of them new and unique, like changing views on what is acceptable behavior for senior officers. But most of the reliefs appeared to be traceable to the rating system (where commanders evaluate their subordinates each year). Seeking solutions, the navy queried commanders for new ideas for the evaluation system. One of the more interesting ones is to hold commanders responsible for their evaluations. Thus, when a commander was up for promotion, one of the items considered would be the accuracy of their past evaluations. After all, the higher your rank, the more important it is for you to pick the right people for promotion. The navy has also looked at how corporations handle this evaluation process, and discovered that it was common to poll subordinates for evaluations as well. The navy was aware that some commanders consult senior NCOs (chiefs) on evaluations. Chiefs have a lot of experience, and see officers a bit differently than more senior officers.

Another problem was a major modification, two decades ago, in these fitness reports, in which written comments on many aspects of an officer evaluation were changed to a 1-5 ranking system. The new method also forced raters to rank all their subordinates against each other. This was unfair to a bunch of high performing officers who happened to be serving together, and being rated by the same commander.

Even more worrisome is the fact that only a small percentage of reliefs have to do with professional failings (a collision or serious accident, failing a major inspection or just continued poor performance.) Most reliefs (over two-thirds) were, and still are, for adultery, drunkenness or theft. Or, in the case of one relieved captain, telling jokes that sailors enjoy, and some politicians don't.

With more women in the military, there have been more reliefs for, as the saying goes, "zipper failure." Typically, these reliefs include phrases pointing out that the disgraced officer, "acted in an unprofessional manner toward several subordinates" or "was inappropriate, improper and unduly familiar.” Such "familiarity" usually includes sex with subordinates, and a commander who is having zipper control problems often has other shortcomings as well. Senior commanders traditionally act prudently and relieve a commander who demonstrates a pattern of minor problems and who they "lack confidence in."

Most senior officers see the problem not of too many commanders being relieved, but too many unqualified officers getting command in the first place. Not every officer is qualified for a senior (ship, brigade, wing) command. Only a small percentage of commissioned officers get one. The competition for unit commands is pretty intense. This, despite the fact that officers know that, whatever goes wrong once you get it, the commander is responsible.

It's a hard slog for a new officer (rank O-1) to make it to a major command. For every hundred officers entering service, only about ten percent of them will make it to O-6 (colonel/captain) and get a major command (ship/brigade/wing). Officers who do well commanding a unit will often get to do it two or three times before they retire after about 30 years of service.

But with all this screening and winnowing, why are more unqualified officers getting to command large units and ships, and then getting relieved because they can't hack it? Some point to the growing popularity of "mentoring" by senior officers (that smaller percentage that makes it to general or admiral.) This sort of thing has been around since organized armed forces were invented, but has long been recognized as a dangerous way to select the next generation of senior leaders. While the military uses a board of officers to decide which officers get senior commands, the enthusiastic recommendation of one or more generals or admirals still counts. Perhaps it counts too much. While the military is increasingly quick to relieve any commander that screws up, up until that point, it is prudent not to offend any generals or admirals by implying that their judgment of "up and coming talent" is faulty. In the aftermath of these reliefs, it often becomes known that the relieved officer had a long record of problems. But because he (or, increasingly, she) was "blessed" by one or more superiors, these infractions were overlooked. The golden boys tend to be very personable and, well, look good. The military promotion system is organized to rise above such superficial characteristics, but apparently the power, and misuse, of mentoring, has increasingly corrupted the process.

And then there is the problem with the chiefs, history and zero tolerance. Asking the senior NCOs for their opinions, might provide some illumination about officer potential. Except that, over the last decade, officers have been less inclined to ask their men and women much. The "zero tolerance" atmosphere that has permeated the military since the end of the Cold War, has led officers to take direct control of supervisory duties the senior NCOs used to handle. The sergeants and chiefs have lost a lot of their influence, responsibility and power.

The problem is that, with "zero tolerance", one mistake can destroy a career. This was not the case in the past. Many of the outstanding admirals and generals of World War II would have never survived in today's military. These men often screwed up along the way, but their careers survived these incidents. That is no longer the case. It's also well to remember that, once World War II began, there was a massive removal of peacetime commanders from ships, and other senior commands. The peacetime evaluation system selected officers who were well qualified to command in peacetime, but not in wartime. This was recognized in the two years before the United States entered the war (with massive transfers and forced retirements of senior officers), and confirmed when so many more commanders had to be relieved when they proved to be incapable of handling their duties in actual combat.

Some American generals and admirals take comfort in the old observation that, in combat, it's usually not a matter of who is better, but who is worse. As bad as the American officer selections system is, most other nations are far worse. But that should not be used as an excuse to avoid problems that still exist. If a potential foe decides to clean out the incapable officers, they could quickly have a much more effective military. It’s happened before, and there's always the chance it will happen again, and not to America's advantage.





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