Maunsell_Army_FortIt is not unusual when things are rough and appear to be of poor going in the military, to look at the top of the chain of command for the problems. That is smart, because that is usually where the problems are.

Over the years I have called for the “Burke Option” to deep select a vibrant, young CNO to break the adhesions of the lost decade that started this century. Others have called for it too as another way to break up the intellectual logjam up top. Would it help? It did last time it was tried … but then again they had Arleigh Burke.

Is this general malaise towards the performance of our uniformed senior leadership fair? Is it just a Navy problem?

I think it is DOD wide. Back in 2007, LTC Paul Yinling penned what started a serious challenge to the performance record of our General Officers and Flag Officers (GOFO) in his zero-elevation broadside, A Failure in Generalship;

America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America’s generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

An entire book was written by Thomas E. Ricks covering the shortcoming of today’s – and past – GOFO in The Generals.

Another Army Lieutenant Colonel, Daniel L. Davis, this August went to the well again in the Armed Forces Journal (subscription required) ;

The U.S. Army’s generals, as a group, have lost the ability to effectively function at the high level required of those upon whom we place the responsibility for safeguarding our nation,…

In August on this blog, I hit the topic too. I think this tilting against the GOFO windmill is pointless.

For such action to take place such as clearing the deck would take the right civilian leadership in the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch – and I see neither the appetite nor huevos to do such a thing.

DFCSo, we will continue course and speed unless otherwise directed … and in a fashion, that is fine – until it isn’t. If you judge what some see in the mid-grade leadership … the next few decades may be interesting on the way to “isn’t.”

If we are looking for leadership problems to address, is that the right part to look at? Some don’t think so, and instead point a worried finger to the incoming, not the soon to be outgoing. I don’t agree, and here is where I have a disconnect with what I have been reading not about the top of the chain of command, but at the generation coming in the entry level.

I have a lot of faith in this generation of junior officers – but I am starting to read a lot on the civilian side that makes me pause; am I missing something?

Is a civilian-military divide a bad thing? Maybe not if this is what is going on in the civilian side with recent graduates. Via Martha White in Time;

… the problem with the unemployability of these young adults goes way beyond a lack of STEM skills. As it turns out, they can’t even show up on time in a button-down shirt and organize a team project.

The technical term for navigating a workplace effectively might be soft skills, but employers are facing some hard facts: the entry-level candidates who are on tap to join the ranks of full-time work are clueless about the fundamentals of office life.

A survey by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College finds that more than 60% of employers say applicants lack “communication and interpersonal skills” — a jump of about 10 percentage points in just two years. A wide margin of managers also say today’s applicants can’t think critically and creatively, solve problems or write well.

Another employer survey, this one by staffing company Adecco, turns up similar results. The company says in a statement, “44% of respondents cited soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration, as the area with the biggest gap.” Only half as many say a lack of technical skills is the pain point.

The argument, at least inside the Navy, about the lack of critical thinking and creativity, predates the present generation. At least for my generation, we have pushed back against it from day one as a byproduct of too much emphasis on technical training and too little on thinking.

White’s comments, and of those she interviews on the civilian side, do not – at least from this seat – ring true. I don’t see a problem with our junior officers’ performance, attitude or critical thinking – if anything we are repressing all three. Are we getting the pick of the litter?

I just left active duty four years ago – but even that is getting stale, so let me roll this back to our readers: where does our stable of officers need the most attention? The war horses long in tooth, grumpy, set in their ways, and graying about the muzzle – or the rambunctious colts and fillies snatching reins when you’re not looking? Maybe we’re getting the pick of the litter – but I don’t see the problem in leadership with the twenty-somethings.

Or, if you look at the pic above and follow the link next to it – are the challenges we are having separate from the civilian world and totally of our making – and we’re a few decades in to making it?

Posted by CDRSalamander in Training & Education

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

  • Old Nuke

    …. and now 2 more Flag Officers implicated in the logistics scandal in the WESTPAC. Obama continuing to clean house of the GOFOs that refuse to wear the jackboots and walk lock step with the administration.

    • Jason

      Not sure that you’re reading the news – the current scandal in WESTPAC is the result of an NCIS investigation, not a conspiracy against the military. Partisan politics has nothing to do with it. While you’re entitled to an opinion, aside from a more critical examination of the facts, I would also recommend keeping in mind the civil-military tradition within which the U.S. military operates.

      • Old Nuke

        Fine, guilty of fishing for a political argument …. but, NCIS has found corruption in their ranks too. Maybe we need a special prosecutor?

      • LT Paris

        Fairly sure it’s a DOJ investigation. Everyone that’s been to Westpac has met FL – but not everyone takes bribes. If folks stepped over the line and also happen to be admirals now, they should be held just as accountable as anyone else.

    • Joshua Oberg

      I just figured they were padding their resumes in preparation for a move to the financial sector….

  • Sal, You sense “something” but are having trouble articulating. I know what you mean. Call it cognitive dissonance, but perhaps a good deal of the “something” is the disconnect between what we say and what we do. Could it be our blind faith in technology, and implicit distrust of Sailors? Perhaps a combination of both. For example, as we build our Fleet we should return to ground-truth physics; the ultimate “people program” is designing and building ships that increase the likelihood the crew will prevail in battle AND return home—perhaps one source of this dissonance is a lingering doubt we’re doing our best for the Sailor where it counts the most. You can’t put your finger on it, but it is in the air, as it were.

    I sense one reason the services in general are a buzz about leadership, is the fact that our ground-brethren have spent ten years being shot at, and that forces folks to think and question when perhaps they would not in garrison, and let’s face it: the money is drying up. In the Navy we see ships being built and sold to the Fleet that are wholly unsuited to combat, even though that is part of the name—-so would that elicit a question in the mind of the follower? Legitimately, I believe the question to be fair.

    We’d do well to remember Wylie’s four basics of strategy when discussing these dynamics: (1) there will be war (2) the aim of war is some measure of control (3) the pattern of war is not predictable (4) the ultimate tool of control in war is the man on the scene with a gun. It is incumbent on the Navy (services) to select the right people to exercise control, who possess the ability to cope with the ever-changing patterns, and make the right decisions on the scene. In WWII we ditched leaders who couldn’t with leaders who could because the threat was existential; budget woes by comparison aren’t.

    A Burke or a Zumwalt would not these days be tolerated by either the services or their civilian masters—the inbreeding is too prevalent between DoD and industry. Hard choices face us at home while China bulks up to throw us out of the SCS—and on our current glide path they will.

    • “…having trouble articulating.” – that is why I almost didn’t post on this topic. I managed to edit to an 80% solution and fired. Your four points from Wylie is spot on in a general context.

  • M. Thompson

    Considering it’s been twenty years since the CNO had an everyday on the waterfront job, I think there’s a bit of both divide from the operating forces and the lack of thinking.

  • Jason

    The criticism about critical thinking is a bit of a strawman in some respects. I would like to think, as a Gen X’r, that we had it all together, but I think it would be easy to criticize the critical thinking capacity of a generation.

    That said, I tend to view the system, rather than the inherent qualities of the Millenials, as the issue. The Cold War military, particularly the Navy, is rigid. One-size-fits-all career progressions probably aren’t going to fly with many Millenials and it will be increasingly difficult to retain good officers and enlisted from this generation. I agree, the Navy’s particular emphasis on technical training associated with its various warfare communities already has a deleterious effect on the development of leaders.

    On the question of ethics, it would be interesting to put Captain Light’s article and data in front of Millenials – enlisted and officer – and see whether they come to the same conclusions. My guess is that they’re not going to connect with the issues of adultery and fraternization. With increasingly egalitarian attitudes among Millenials, and the morally relativistic attitudes that tends to make the youngest professional generation similar to European counterparts (at least on social issues), I suspect they’ll see these issues as systemic failures rather than ethical ones. A controversial point, I know; however, most folks can concede that if we placed the same ethical burden on historic leaders we probably would not have had some of the leaders we hold dear in history – Nimitz, Halsey, Carl Brashear, and James Williams are a few who come to mind.