Generally speaking, Mcpherson is correct in his analysis. However, this article is the equivalent to producing a Cliff's note version to the material that is taught at HBS (where the author is enrolled) and expecting the subjects to be adequately addressed. The complexities and inequities surrounding promotion/selection boards merits a thesis not the cursory analysis given in the article.
Again, all that is beside the point. The question that one should ask themselves after reading this article is:
My initial guess would be that because this article was written by a Marine and since the Marine Corps has a dual-track FAO program, many of his points remain valid. However, I fault his 'research' because his article isn't addressing only the Marine Corps career advancement problems, he aspires to address DOD-wide issues.
A robust DOD-wide FAO program answers the call for visionary, well-rounded leaders. But it isn't mentioned even once. Now this is not to say that the FAO program in the Navy (or the other branches) is "there" yet, but it is going in the right direction. It is taking proven, superior-performing warfare-qualified officers who have done tours in the fleet and combat and given them the educational and non-traditional exposure for which the author cries. And as a stand-alone community in the Navy, it is giving them the opportunity for promotion (again, let me emphasize this system isn't anywhere near perfect).
Perhaps a more appropriate (and future) article would be one addressing the need for more FAO leadership billets DOD-wide so that the promotion opportunities are truly there.
See my comments in italics throughout the article.
By Renny McPherson
September 26, 2010
President Obama recently demoted General David Petraeus, the man who led the turnaround in Iraq and is widely acknowledged to be the most effective military officer of his generation.
In June, the president needed a new commander to lead the war effort in Afghanistan, after General Stanley McChrystal spoke too openly with a Rolling Stone reporter and was forced to resign. And, while few may realize this, when Petraeus was appointed to take over in Afghanistan, he was replacing a subordinate. Petraeus may yet be hailed for saving the day. But he also got a new boss and moved one step down the chain of command.
How does this happen to the best our military has to offer? Why was there no other general to take the job?
The short answer is that the US military has failed to produce enough leaders like Petraeus--the kind of broad-minded, flexible strategic thinkers needed to lead today’s most difficult missions. And a large contributor to this failure is the military’s inflexible system of promotion, which can actively discourage young officers from getting the mind-expanding, challenging experiences that could turn them into potent generals.
Two years ago, I joined three colleagues in a project to understand this problem more deeply. We interviewed 37 top military leaders, all of them having commanded abroad at high levels since 9/11. A third of the interviewees were three- or four-star generals and over half had served in special operations units. The interviewees included combatant commanders, theater special operations commanders, and corps- and division-level commanders. They were some of our nation’s finest and most experienced senior officers.
Given a guarantee of anonymity, they talked openly about the experiences that had helped them become better strategic thinkers. They reported that most beneficial experiences--sustained international experience, civilian graduate education, and taking on special opportunities out of the military mainstream--were the very ones that they felt discouraged from pursuing. As one interviewee said, ”My career has been an aberration. I am surprised I’ve achieved up to this level.”
Listening to them, it was clear that some officers with a broad-minded, strategic worldview do make it through the ranks--but they succeed despite the military’s training priorities, not because of them. Every year, faced with such a system, potential Petraeuses of the future choose instead to leave. This is a VERY idealistic opinion, much more likely reasons are the deployment cycles, current Individual Augmentation (IA) system, and pay inequities.
Over the course of the 20th century, the United States became the dominant world power by advancing the technology of warfare. Now the information revolution, recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and global counter-terrorism have shown that an expanded set of skills is required of our top officers. Today we need military leaders who can process the ever-larger amounts of information coming at them and who can communicate more dexterously up, down, and across; they also must be adept at dealing with nonmilitary institutions and quick to learn foreign cultures. So...FAO's.
Giving our next generation of military leaders the right experiences on their way up the military ladder will help determine whether our nation will win or lose on the complex, amorphous battlefields of tomorrow. For now, as one of our interviewees starkly put it: ”We don’t educate to be generals.”
For an officer rising through the ranks, the right experiences are critical. A Marine friend of mine faced a situation a few years ago in which a phenomenal opportunity lay right in front of him, but he felt pressured not to accept it. He had an offer to work directly for General Petraeus--but he knew that his current commander would see the job as veering off the standard career track, and would deny the transfer. So he had to wait for the commander to rotate out of his unit before accepting the job.
To someone outside the military, a chance to work for General Petraeus in 2005 might not seem ”off track” at all--it would seem undeniably valuable to serve so close to the officer then in charge of training and equipping all Iraqi forces. That's a strong supposition. Maybe it would have, maybe it wouldn't of. I am curious what the actual billet was and why the position wasn't named in the article. Working directly for a "visionary" isn't always everything its cracked up to be. To military service members, however, this would need no explanation. Military personnel are accustomed to a system in which young officers are dependent on their commanders to recognize the value of alternative experiences, and they wouldn’t be surprised that a young Marine officer who wanted to cross service lines to work for an Army general would expect serious resistance. That friend, a much decorated and respected Marine, has since left the Corps and is now at graduate school with me. Did he get out because he was passed over for promotion or for one of the other reasons I named earlier.
In identifying what experiences made them better strategic thinkers, the leaders we surveyed talked about time spent serving as an aide or staffer to a senior military official, interacting with civilian parts of the US government, and making the most of serving abroad. They spoke highly of joint military schools--that is, schools with military members from other services--as well as civilian graduate school.
Leaving their comfort zone--literally--was also key for the interviewees. In particular, they emphasized the value of interaction with others who have different values. This does not simply mean fellow service members with dissimilar political views but repeated, regular contact with an array of leaders and everyday citizens from different cultures. These opportunities tend to exist outside the ladder of typical command and staff positions that officers are expected to climb--they’re found instead in foreign education, in positions with NATO partners, and in special assignments such as serving as a UN observer. Positions that FAOs should be filling.
The skill of communication--that often ignored barrier between getting a strategy right and executing it well--is more easily learned when one is faced with people who do not share your worldview. The interviewees spoke of taking such assignments with excitement but heavy hearts because they knew these jobs would potentially limit their ability to keep getting promoted. Today’s promotion system rightly rewards traditionally important jobs such as commanding a unit, but does not do a good enough job of rewarding these other valuable experiences. Hence why you need a separate dedicated career track such as the one that Navy has.
At the highest levels, the crucial promotion from colonel to general is very dependent on the officers making the decision, which means that candidates are often punished for exactly the kind of creative, unorthodox experiences that should be encouraged. It's actually probably more heavily based on personal relationships and whether you have a sea-daddy Admiral/General looking out for you. Famously, and commendably, the former Secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, forced Petraeus and McChrystal, then the two golden generals of the Army, to fly back from Iraq in late 2007 to serve on a promotion board--this at a time when both men were in essential jobs, one running the entire war and the other operating from the shadows to defeat the most irreconcilable of enemies. This reinforces my point. Promotions to the flag level are heavily based on relationships and personalities.
Geren did this because he knew that without these two men on the board, several stand-out officers would not get promoted. At least one of the officers hoping to be promoted was well known for speaking his mind about what the military does and doesn’t get right. Is such an attitude really so dangerous that the Secretary of the Army should need to fly in officers commanding a war to make sure an officer with a stellar record actually gets his promotion?
History offers many examples of strategic thinkers who were able to identify shifts in their reality and thus to re-conceive warfare in creative and effective ways. After Napoleon routed the Prussians, who were still relying on the strategic thinking of Frederick the Great, Carl von Clausewitz and other reformers shaped the Prussian Army into the strong and capable force that it was from the mid-19th century until the end of World War II. Generals Grant and Sherman, after seeing Union armies defeated by the South in classic maneuver warfare, adopted a strategy of attrition and pressure in 1864 and 1865 that helped them win the Civil War and preserve the union. In the 20th century, warfare was transformed by visionary strategists in America who realized the huge importance aviation would have on warfare.
Such creative military leaders will be the ones who prevail on the battlefields of the future--and of today. The demands now placed on the American military require leaders who have a broad worldview and are humble enough to know that seeking diverse experiences will make them better officers. It is time for the military establishment to adopt a system that does not penalize them for building such experiences along the way. The military is establishing such a system: The Foreign Area Officer Community.
Every day, I witness firsthand the results of the exodus of talented and ambitious young officers. As a former Marine officer now at Harvard Business School, I have more than 30 veteran classmates. Of these, only one intends to return to active duty in the military upon graduation. I take pride in my own service as an intelligence officer both in East Asia and in Iraq, and when I see the caliber of these former officers, I am constantly reminded of what the military has lost. While it is a great value to our nation that these men served at all, I wish that a few of them had stayed to become career officers. I understand why they left--I have chosen to leave, too--but I dearly wish it could be different.
Petraeus, in an interview at Princeton University, where he obtained his doctorate, said of his graduate education: ”The courses in international relations, security studies, and economics all have proved to be of considerable value, especially in recent years.” What might sound obvious to an outsider is still a bold statement in the US military. Americans and Afghans alike are fortunate that Petraeus has now brought his experience to Afghanistan. Now we need to be open enough to grow more leaders like him.
Renny McPherson, a Harvard graduate who served as a Marine officer in Anbar province, Iraq, in 2006, and as a civilian analyst for the Defense Department in Baghdad in 2008, is currently a student at Harvard Business School. This article draws on a report that appears in the Spring 2010 edition of Parameters, a journal published by the US Army War College.
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