Leadership: August 1, 2005

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The American military is having increasing problems working with the military rank system. Currently, there are 24 military ranks (pay grades) in the U.S. armed forces (nine enlisted, from E-1 recruit to E-9 Sergeant Major, five grades of warrant officer, then ten grades for commissioned officer, from 2nd Lieutenant to four star general). There are some slight differences between the services (especially in exactly what each rank is called.) 

The problem is that this rank system was developed over two centuries ago, and was based on a caste system that no longer exists. Way back in the day, the enlisted troops were generally lower class, illiterate and often not the best specimens the lower classes, then representing some 90 percent of the population, had to offer. The warrant ranks really didnt exist back then. The commissioned officers were gentlemen, recruited from the few percent of the population that had money and property and  could afford to educate their children. Over the last few decades, this system has become more dysfunctional, as educational levels for enlisted personnel continue to climb. More trouble arose as the need increased for highly trained, and hard to find, technical specialists to run, and maintain the increasingly complex equipment the troops were using. 

So far, the military has improvised. Theres now a complex system of bonuses to attract, and keep, essential technical people. Another popular ploy is to simply hire, for even more money (but only as needed) qualified civilians for these jobs. All of this is not unique to the military. Many civilian firms have key technical people who are paid more than the executives (commissioned officers) that supervise them. But the military has another problem with its executives. Civilian firms will keep a qualified individual in a leadership position for a long time, if the job is getting done. But half a century ago, the military got hooked on the, then popular, civilian management idea of up or out. This theory, since discredited and much modified, held that your executives should qualify for promotion, or be fired. Up or out. The military adopted this practice for everyone. In practice, it meant people with good technical skills would get booted out of the service because they just wanted to keep doing what they were good at, and not get promoted to do a leadership job they didnt want. To deal with this, the military introduced the warrant officer rank. These were techies who were allowed to keep doing what they were good at, without worrying about unwanted promotions to higher rank, or transfer to jobs commanding units. 

Actually, the warrant officer idea worked pretty well, if you used it aggressively enough. But the American military is reluctant to do what other countries have done, and basically replace the higher NCO ranks with warrant officers. But there are many advantages. Since the warrant officers hang out with the commissioned officers (at the officers clubs and such), its easier to communicate informally, and get things done. But currently, senior NCOs (especially the top three enlisted ranks, many of whom have college degrees) contain people who have far more in common with officers their own age, than those officers do with the junior officers who also hang out at the officers club.

There is a lot of rumbling, and grumbling, in the ranks about a need for some fundamental change in the American military personnel system. The evolutionary changes have not kept up with demand, and a revolutionary change is needed. Perhaps another raid on civilian personnel practices is in order.

 


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