I am confident this will not be a best-seller, but I am tardy in mentioning the publication of Bleeding Talent here on our blog. Although Glenn and I are in the thick of completing our second draft of BALANCE, I am proud to share the news that the first book I’ve written was just published earlier this month by the academic publisher Palgrave Macmillan. It’s on sale at Barnes and Noble and Amazon (though you can get a much better price at B&N).
I started researching military leadership roughly three years ago based on a little paradox that I noted more after I left the ranks than when I was a young officer myself. The U.S. military is widely and correctly perceived to be a source of great leaders. It is also known as the best institution in the world for educating and training raw leaders into excellent, insightful, and indeed creative leaders. Why then is the Pentagon so miserable at managing its awesome human talent?
The answer is awkward. It’s not a topic that many business experts think about because the military is foreign to those 91% of CEOs without military experience. And it’s not a topic that veterans talk much about publicly, as this would be biting the hand that fed us. But the bleeding talent inside the military is the saddest, longest-lasting, and harmful self-inflicted organizational wound in our federal government. Every officer has a horror story to share about the personnel bureaucracy. Even the generals and admirals know that their careers were made despite the system not because of it. It has vexed Presidents from Truman and Eisenhower, who both called Congressional attention to it, to Bush and Obama. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates retired lamenting that this is the one battle he could not win, the one challenge that he worried would haunt the Army’s future, moreso than terrorism or foreign foes:
How can the Army can break-up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most-battled tested young officers to lead the service in the future?
I was advised by some agents to write this book for a mainstream publisher by cutting the appendix with details of a survey of 250 West Point graduates, cutting the chapter about how the bureaucracy really (doesn’t) work, and cutting the history of personnel policies dating back a hundred years. I was told to exorcise the word methodology. But I knew that if the ideas I propose were to have credibility and time to marinate in the minds of young officers today who will serve as generals tomorrow, then those things had to remain in the text. So God bless Palgrave for publishing this with all of its scholarship, such as it is.
There are nine chapters. Chapter 3 is probably my favorite because it shares the biographies of half a dozen famous Americans who would never make rank in today’s military: George Washington spent decades as a civilian entrepreneur before taking on a general’s rank; Robert E. Lee was an engineer not a warrior; Jim Gavin was too young; Dwight Eisenhower was an old staffer.
Chapter 7 is my attempt to talk about the philosophy of war. Coercion has been the bedrock of armies since mankind first organized for battle. Still today coercion dominates the way soldiers are organized by the Pentagon, even though motivation is how they are led on the field. Odd, no? Americans are led like the volunteer heroes they are, but their careers are managed like cogs in a machine. There’s no excuse for it, only a lack of imagination and a dumb deference to the way it has always been.
In Chapter 5, I describe an alternative set of principles for organizing human capital in the military. Instead of an All Volunteer Force (where the voluntary nature of service lasts for a single day — the first day), I propose a Total Volunteer Force where autonomy and dignity replace coercion and the false idol of “service above self.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for duty, honor, country, but no longer believe they are operational involuntarily. Again, my sense is that even the highest ranking officers in our military know their system is broken, but they have never had an alternative in the broadest strokes. Now they do.