Poor Leaders – Why Most Get Out

Everyone in the U.S. gets the meme that “America’s military is without peer and that it’s Soldiers are the best in the world” smashed into their skulls with a pipe wrench. And yes, we could kick the ass of any other country today in a stand up high intensity conflict or whip any insurgent in unconventional warfare when our hands are politically untied (not likely anymore with globalised media) but, there is a plague in the military and thy name is poor leadership.

Our Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer corps have suffered greatly over the past decade of conflict. After Vietnam, the army took a good hard look on how it had squandered the necessary political capital to sustain the fight and made several adjustments. Gone was the draft and in its place is the American warrior caste, your modern all volunteer force. For a while it worked without damaging our combat or political power, the military became a family calling for most and the tragedy of combat losses were restricted to a small subset of American culture. That is until you factored in PTSD. With rising rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the military has seen an exodus of its NCOs and young officers and has tried to staunch the flow with increased recruiting and stop-loss.

That exodus has created a situation where people who should not lead get promoted just to fill the slot because there is simply no one left to do that job. Becoming an E-5 used to be a major event in an enlisted Soldier’s life, a mark of respect and responsibility, now they are handing the rank of sergeant out like candy.

Likewise in my branch basic school, the standard to pass the class and get the opportunity to command a platoon was based on proving to a seasoned staff sergeant that you were capable of accomplishing a combat mission with no sleep, little time, and extreme stress. That still occurred but I was shocked upon graduation to see fellow LTs who had failed their “gauntlet” mission (and the retest) standing beside me at graduation. I was so shocked that I went to my tester, Staff Sergeant Snider (An absolutely amazing NCO) and asked why the Schols-a-raptor had failed to get recycled or terminated. I even had to repeat a portion of the class when I failed to take into account how the frozen ground would limit my tank’s ability to establish a cordon on the objective (who knew that tanks slide on ice, zombie-christ-on-a-stick I’m from Texas). He looked at me apologetically and said that there was a quota in place and they couldn’t afford to fire him.

Unless you get a DWI or commit sexual misconduct these days, you are guaranteed to keep your job as an officer for the whole 20 years because so many people got out after the bad old days of Iraq and no amount of video game recruitment tools, bonuses, stop-loss, or hiding the true commitment of US power with contractors can fill the gap.

So when a captain calls me in to do his job and plan a tier 1 mission (something that I am not supposed to do at my current level) because he doesn’t know how, it hurts.

When a lazy leader cannot be bothered from playing Angry Birds to quality check his shop’s UAV request and the mission support for Soldiers on the ground who are in contact goes 40 clicks off path, it hurts and places Soldiers at risk.

And when incompetent officers who don’t do their jobs by supporting troops that are dying in an ambush and a Soldier defies their orders to save his friends, it hurts and leads to parents getting the dreaded knock. No medal or award can make up for the loss of life.

That shitty middle management type of boss that most people have had the displeasure of working for at some point in their life has now embedded themselves inside the military and instead of fucking up a meaningless TPS report; they are contributing to needless deaths of the very people they lead.

The snowball started by the PTSD exodus has become amplified by the new number one reason people like me and my young sergeants get out, poor leadership. Because we as a people have isolated the responsibility of military commitment to a small percentage of society we have reduced the supply of competent leaders and suffer for it. I firmly believe that leadership cannot be taught in a classroom, it must be forged from experience in people with inherent abilities. I learned to lead by observing bad examples during ROTC, by never accepting failure in the things that matter to me (though it took a good portion of my misspent youth to find what those were), and by honest self evaluation. I had the honor of being rated as one of the top Platoon Leaders in my battalion not by a PT score (mediocre by officer standards) but by reading my manuals and enforcing standards, by simply doing my job. Before my last OER (army report card) I honestly thought I was just doing the job to standard and I was. I didn’t even know if I was a good PL, something that filled my dreams and always motivated me to improve every day. I am not the greatest leader or even a particularly good one; it was just that everyone else sucked.

Tired leaders make bad decisions and most of the good leaders are tired from having to haul our substandard brethren along.

You can’t expect what you don’t inspect and many leaders can’t be bothered to check.

More sweat on the training ground means less blood on the battle ground, yet I was the only one who took my platoon out of the office to train counter-IED tactics on a regular basis.

We are a broken army, if we had to fight a peer level foe today we would still win but it would be an extra bloody affair because of stupidity and negligence. We as leaders have failed our Soldiers, their families, and our fellow citizens.

P.S. your tax dollars go to pay two officers twice the mode American annual salary to do nothing but write a two page order ever day because they are too incompetent to do their assigned jobs and that is just in the room that I last worked in and who’s continuing gross incompetency spurred me to write this rant. Being a staff officer is not glorious and that comes from one that gets to sit in on big planning sessions with colonels and majors as the only LT in the room (that can’t hurt my résumé). I know I’m blessed with the curse of competency but I am so demotivated by watching other officers in their shops fail to understand that their boring office existence has ramifications that can get people killed. But they don’t have to write those letters home, it falls to the butter bar whom I handed my platoon over too at the conclusion of my allotted platoon time, the staff officers just go back to playing fucking Angry Birds.


  1. geocatherder says

    Back in my days of engineering for a military contractor, we had an inside joke of being “promoted to one’s level of incompetence”. It was meant to refer to engineers who should have stayed engineers and never been promoted into management.

    Your post takes that joke, turns it around 180 degrees, and exposes its dark side for all to see.

    • Mark says

      Oh yes, the “Peter Principle”. It’s horrifying to think of the Peter Principle applying in life-and-death situations.

  2. unbound says

    Very sad to see corporate culture replicated in the military (yes, there are many senior managers and senior executives where I work that are incompetent). Being responsible for peoples lives is very different than being responsible for careers. Corporate level irresponsibility is far too dangerous in the military.

    All I can say is do the best you can for yourself and your men.

  3. minxatlarge says

    I am sorry to hear you confirm what I was seeing during my time supporting a VA vocational rehabilitation contractor. It seems as if half of the vets were E-5 and expected to be immediately placed in middle management, while their test scores suggested that working at Wal-Mart was their best option.

    You have my sympathy for suffering under pointy haired bosses. You deserve better. Our country deserves better.

  4. Igakusei says

    I was a five year Staff Sergeant in the Marines, and this is a big reason why I got out. I was certainly promoted faster than normal, but to be honest most of my peers were not far behind. Most of us had no business at all filling those shoes with so little experience.

  5. Lori says

    Compensation seems to be a significant factor in this problem. While enlisted entry level pay may be okay for a H.S. graduate, I doubt it’s commensurate with the risk, even with other benefits factored in. Officer compensation seems to have a similar risk/reward imbalance.

    (Caveat: I’m a former dependent from the Viet Nam era and have a very dim view of the military in general and it’s policies regarding compensation and members with families in particular. Their support services were pathetic then and from what I’ve read aren’t much better today. And I’ll stop now before this becomes a full-blown rant.)

    • says

      The pay and benifits suck. You do the job because you love the country, feel that if someone has to do it that it should be you, or you can’t get hired at a fast food joint / that basket weaving degree turned out to not land a good job.

      • Lori says

        Oh ya, I totally get that, nothing else makes sense.

        It makes me sad and angry that the kids that get enticed into enlisting, in one way or another, have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.

        I’ve seen it in action with my husband’s cousin. It’s been two years since he got out and he’s only now getting himself together. And now he’s years behind his peers in the job market. The support he’s gotten from the Army has been lackluster at best.

  6. says

    I think this problem is compounded when you look at the current disconnect between the senior field grades who are coming up for battalion and brigade command and how they spent the first chunk of their career. The priorities are just completely out of whack. While I’ve had some phenomenal mentors (particularly when I first got up to staff) I’ve also seen the flip side, where leaders can’t move past what it was like “when they were 2LTs/1LTs/CPTs” when the worst that could happen was maybe a tour to Bosnia or a rotation to Kuwait.

    I had a colleague that I worked with this last tour in Afghanistan who was just pinning Major, and he saw it a lot worse. He was on his fifth tour (lots of SF rotations) and he was relating to me his time as a company commander. Despite his company having some of the best performance records in the battalion and brigade he was constantly getting lectured on why he wasn’t married, or why he wasn’t interested on having a family. The commander of his unit had come up during the 1990s, and couldn’t get past why people didn’t want to play the same image games that him and his peers had to play.

    I ended up rotating to Afghanistan as an individual augmentee (I needed a break from the field) and going through the processing stations at Fort Benning with a bunch of O5s and O6s who had never deployed, but pretended that they did because they were FAOs somewhere in Europe or, at worst, Jordan.

    So its not just guys coming up from the bottom that are causing the problems. You’ve also got guys who have been able to take command simply by sticking around and playing the game. There are obviously lots of people who aren’t like that, but the ones that do often make it painful enough for people that they want to get out.

    Of course, I also think it depends on your branch. I just switched out of Field Artillery, and morale on that side of the house is just through the floor.

  7. drlake says

    This should be reprinted on Tom Ricks’ national defense blog at ForeignPolicy.com. He’s posted many times about these issues, as well as posting guest essays.

  8. Art says

    The lack of military competence and leadership is a rich subject internationally and historically. Google around the subject of the absurdity of military life before we got into WWI, WWII, Korea.

    The story is always similar. A professional military class of ring-knockers, bootlicks and politicians run the place like a private club where connections, time served, and form are all more important than function and military effectiveness.

    The British have their own long history of peacetime incompetence, wartime tragedy, followed by grudging and painful reform. I suspect their experience may be more relevant to the US situation now because they have a much longer and richer history of small bushfire wars that could be ignored by the larger society.

    Afghanistan and Iraq are both more similar to British colonial wars than the more existential conflicts of US involvement in WWI and WWII.

    About all you can do is hang tough and focus on maintaining functionality in your little corner of the wider circus.

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