Bleeding Talent, the best leadership book of the year … that I wrote

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).

Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It's Time for a Revolution

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.

4 responses to “Bleeding Talent, the best leadership book of the year … that I wrote

  1. Interesting post, sounds like a fascinating book. It does raise a question related to something I’ve long thought about. I’ve always assumed that the hierarchical form of the modern corporation comes from aping the pre-existing structure of armies: the CEO is the commander-in-chief, C-level executives are the generals, middle managers are the colonels and majors, and the employees are the infantry and cavalry men. This implies the same upward flow of information through the ranks and downward flow of commands that you might see in war, which may have made sense in an environment of extreme danger and the overriding need to maintain discipline in the face of almost certain death. However, this hierarchy has struck me as incredibly outdated for decades and horribly so in the information age, engendering all-out internal turf wars between various parts of the bureaucracy when their minds aren’t focused by external threats. I would guess there are similar problems in the army.

    A more flat, decentralized approach seems better suited to the information age. I would imagine modern warfare- or is it “force deployment” these days? 😉 – would entail some of the same shifts, but perhaps less so because of the aforementioned need for discipline. I guess I wonder to what extent you too believe such a flat, decentralized approach- think of a law firm with many partners, perhaps each leading a small team- is the answer, both in the military and in the corporate world?

  2. Thomas K Littlefield, Jr

    Just saw your article “Army of None”. I don’t think you understand the concept of selfless service. I was a brigade commander with MG Dees in Korea. My replacement at the 06 level also declined command to keep from having to serve in Korea. At the time Korea was tough duty with family separation and it still is, although not as tough as war. Dick Hewitt and those like him made a choice. They decided that they were no longer capable of selfless service. When you make this choice it’s time to go. All in the military make this choice at some time. When you say no to an assignment, it’s time to go. I don’t know Dick, but with the early selections he is what is know as a water walker. That’s OK until you don’t think the rules apply to you or you think you are too good to have to go some where you don’t want to go. For many of us, Korea wasn’t our first choice and in fact very low on our list, but we went any way. I saw in your bio that you were USAFA grad. I guess you also reached a point where you said no. Some reach this point earlier than others.
    Thomas K Littlefield, Jr
    US Army
    75 USMA Grad

    • Sir, I retired in 2008 as a Major after 20 years and some change and thankfully draw a good pension after a tour in Iraq in 2006, OEF in Germany 02-03 Honduras in 1992 under the man who taught then LTC Petraeus about counterinsurgencies in Hiati, and 2 tours to Korea. In Honduras, my boss COL Robert Killebrew instilled a sense of service and who we serve and was years ahead of those he developed. COL Killebrew taught all his staff and soldiers that since Vietnam a clock ticks in the minds of all US citizens as soon as soldiers are sent in harms way. General Petraues credited COL K with teaching him how to fight counterinsurgency in Hiati in 1996. I also worked on the staff of General Schwartz in Korea in 2000. This was not my first trip to the ROK. I enlsited as an MP in 1982 to go to Korea. Mr. Kane is on target; specifically in every officer has a story about PERSCOM. Army Personnel Command manages spaces not faces as the story goes. Every officer whether it is Littlefield, Wolpoff, Schwartz, Petraues, McChrystal, or MacArther are told when its time to go. Branch assignment officers have always been flesh pedalers in their endeavors to serve the Army , their Branch, and their branch Battalion, and Brigade Commanders. Which brings back the Colonel Killebrew question from 1992 in asking the question who are branch assignment officers serving when the decde where young and mid level officers are going. To answer the follow on questions and shoot down the canned Penatgon breifing point responses, yes, a separete board decides who will command. The truth then comes from the brigade and battalion commanders who have their branch assignment officers on speed dial and request specific names to fill their units. Just like George Steinbrenner picking his pitching staff, hot rocks on the A-teams pick their players. An officer with the courage to date the Commandant of West Points daughter is also the officer that gets siderailed by politics to become Director of the CIA and later relieved when the nation needed his truth and insight in Benghazi. If this does not substantiate that we are “Bleeding Talent” at all ranks O-2/first lieutenant through O-10 General, Colonel Retired Littlefield, Sir you were truely a product of the Post Vietnam Era marginal peacetime Army from 1971 and your plebe year through 2005 when you did not make Brigadier General.

      Gregory J. Wolpoff
      Retired Major 2008
      US Army Finance Corps
      OCS Class 2-90

      • Thomas K Littlefield, Jr


        My point is that when you (When I say you in this note, I don’t mean you personally. I’m addressing all soldiers.) reach the point of no longer being able to deliver selfless service. It’s time to go. I went where the Army sent me. When I said no, it was time for me to go. I retired. Simple as that.

        From my view point, the assignment officers had a list to fill along with a list of names. They had dream sheets, calls from the officers on their lists, and sometimes calls from a command. They did the best they could. Assignments are often a matter of luck with something being open that matched your wishes. Every one can’t go to Hawaii. Is the assignment system perfect? No but they do the best they can.

        I had some good and some bad assignments, but they all ended up being good. My first choice was not to be assigned to a readiness group, to instructor duty at the Army Logistics Management College, to Germany in the 70s, to USACOM, and to Korea. In fact, most of these weren’t even on my list, but I went any way. They all ended up being good and part of my great Army memories. Where ever you go, it’s the people you serve with that make the assignment. We had great soldiers every where I was assigned. Again, when you say no to an assignment it’s time to go. There will always be some one to replace you when personal wants exceed selfless service. Thankfully, the talent set is deep with many ready to step up to the plate.

        I do take exception when you negatively address the marginal peace time post Vietnam Army. Yes, those were hard years. Drugs, racial issues, lack of resources, out dated equipment, etc. Those of us who chose to stay knew we could do better. We built the foundation of today’s Army and its leadership. Thankfully, it is a much better Army than the one we joined. My peers and I are very proud to have played a part in this.

        Thank you for your service and best luck in this chapter of your life.

        Kemp Littlefield

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