Your Insights Can Help Veterans

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

We are all driven slightly mad by the rising complexity of modern living, the ever-expanding tax code, the encroachment of the regulatory state on the basics of work, family, and faith. When you live in a country where you need permission to let your child play in the park, drink a big soda, or take peanuts to school, things have gotten out of whack. But in the glow of Veteran’s Day, you have an opportunity to make a dent in the machinery of government run amok on behalf of the men and women who serve.

The U.S. armed forces are filled with the best leaders in the world, but they are suffering under what is arguably the most inflexible personnel bureaucracy in the world. Before his retirement, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates warned that the institutional concrete of military personnel policies is the “greatest challenge facing your Army, and frankly, my main worry.” After two wars, global instability, and the ever-growing threats of nuclear and biological weapons, Gates worries most about home-grown red tape?  It sounds ridiculous, but ask a veteran if you doubt how destructive the mindless HR machine has been to morale and readiness.

I was inspired by the frustration of my brothers and sisters in uniform about this very problem to write a book called Bleeding Talent, published in 2012. It was favorably reviewed in the New York Times, National Review, and twice in Joint Forces Quarterly.

A survey of 250 Army officers drove me to write the book, because the results were a wake-up call. Two thirds of the respondents said that creative thinking was encouraged at the unit level, but they gave failing grades at the service level which centrally manages evaluations, job-assignments, and promotions. For example, I learned commanders don’t interview and select soldiers for their units anymore. Job-matching is done by a centralized organization at Fort Knox for the Army and similar central planners for the other services. This kind of micro-management has stripped commanders of their authority to do anything but maintain the short-term status quo. Evaluations have become meaningless. Merit has been drummed out of the service over the last five decades.

Eisenhower, Nimitz, Grant, Lee, even George Washington would never make rank under today’s Pentagon rules.

If you think that the severe cutbacks on defense funding will cut the bureaucracy, you are sadly mistaken. Manpower costs are nearly half of the DoD budget, but there were fewer Americans in uniform during the wartime peak of recent years than during the 1980s. Fewer troops than ever are being asked to do more than ever, and that equation is at the breaking point.

After Bleeding Talent was published, I received encouragment from hundreds of veterans and soldiers, talked to congressional staffers of both parties, briefed generals at the Pentagon, even met with Presidential appointees eager for reform. Make no mistake, plenty of senior officers are offended by criticism, especially when a book like mine is oversimplified. But the larger lesson I’ve learned two years after publication is that Republicans and Democrats, sailors and soldiers, young and old know the military personnel system is broken. But nobody knows exactly how to fight the creeping bureaucratic state.

That’s where you come in.

I am conducting a major survey via the Hoover Institution at Stanford University – a survey of veterans and non-veterans – to identify best practices in talent management at all kinds of organizations. It takes an individual about 10 minutes to do a 40-point assessment of their employer’s leadership culture and talent management practices. For example, evaluate how true the following statement is at your employer:

“Young leaders are given serious responsibilities.”

Based on preliminary responses, that’s an area where the Army, Air Force, and Navy do very well compared to companies and non-profits. Until we can get a thousand responses, however, we won’t have enough data to separate what works from what doesn’t. So if you’d like to add your insights to this project, just go to this website:

Naturally, the privacy of all participants is guaranteed. And yes, we need insights from you no matter where you work. Management science knows shockingly little about HR metrics for different organizations. I could use your help if you work in fast food, retail, manufacturing, or health care.

After Veterans Day, the kind words flow, and we are reminded of the appreciation of our fellow citizens. It means a lot. But from this one veteran, I can promise that your small action in taking this survey will help me beyond words, your insights will help our sons and daughters on active duty in the future. Thank you.