Military Brain Drain The Pentagon’s top brass is driving away all the smart people. By David Barno


DeM Banter: WOW! So many thoughts and not enough caffeine yet this AM. First, I could not agree more…everyday, I hear about the “glut of talent” (which I quickly point out…it won’t last), next I hear how the DoD will not be held hostage to individual’s threats to leave when it comes to assignments…(the hostage is already dead, the assignment system just has not taken a pulse yet)…the cookie cutter approach to all we do, will no longer work…and it is obvious to the “greater good” leaders living in the system…the “personal power” leaders never cared to begin with and they continue to self promote and make rank. Second, I never worked with or for Gen Barno, but was he preaching this when he was on active duty? Maybe he was, but where are the Generals on the inside that are trying to turn the ship? We, at the initial accession level are still stuck looking for college students with the best GPA and SAT scores…are they going to be the best leaders? How are we assessing leadership and decision making? My head and my heart hurt….we can do better…we need senior leaders to care….believe me, we are trying at the “field” level.
February 13, 2013

In his recent book Bleeding Talent, Tim Kane joins a growing chorus of serving and former junior officers to deliver a wake-up call to today’s military leadership in the face of a major drawdown. Their message: If you ignore the expectations of today’s young, combat-experienced leaders as you shrink the force, your most talented officers and sergeants will exit, stage left.

The military bureaucracy’s response? “Good Riddance.”

During any military drawdown, equipment, training, force structure, and end-strength will inevitably be sacrificed. But the “crown jewel” that must be preserved in order to be able to fight and win in the years ahead is human capital. Recruiting and retaining highly talented people remains the best guarantor of success in future conflicts. No distant campaign against a wily and unpredictable enemy in the 21st century will be won without innovative and creative military leadership. And that leadership is most at risk in the coming thinning of the military’s rolls. And the officer corps most of all.

A colleague told me of a recent meeting with a roomful of senior generals in which he outlined the looming “talent drain,” highlighting the prospect that the most exceptional officers will flee the force in droves over the next five years. Their response echoed the one I hear all too often from both active and retired generals: “If they want to leave the team, we’d be better off without them.”


In no business enterprise would the large-scale loss of an organization’s top performers be greeted with such indifference. In fact, given the likely impact of such losses on any firm’s bottom line, corporate chieftains would likely soon be looking for new jobs themselves if they dismissed their responsibility for managing their best talent. In today’s competitive and uncertain environment, any company that loses its top talent will go out of business.

But in the military, not so much.

With more people than it needs as budgets shrink, and no management redlines to alert service leaders to the loss of their best young leadership, the military simply assumes there will always be more than enough talent to go around. Managing decreasing numbers becomes more important than fighting to retain the best manpower. And a “so what” attitude among senior military leaders toward the loss of highly skilled talent is seen as acceptable, a bravado that is often encouraged by those who “stayed on the team” through previous drawdowns. After all, many of today’s generals think, “As junior officers, we stayed while others left, and we’ve made out just fine.” Plenty of talent will stay, as it always has. Why worry?

There can be no more deadly, pernicious outlook from current or former senior leaders. It conveys a fundamentally flawed message to the military’s young leaders that individuals don’t count, that talent doesn’t matter, and that even in the hyper-competitive world of the 21st century, in the U.S. military, “parts is parts.” This outlook has the potential for deadly consequences as end-strength plunges.

Secretary Bob Gates challenged the Army in a February 2011 speech at West Point to change in order to retain and empower the kinds of leaders it will need for the 21st century. Gates observed: “[The] greatest challenge facing your Army and my main worry [is]: How can the Army 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 battle-tested young officers to lead the service in the future?” Cadets cheered, junior officers were encouraged, and the bureaucracy changed not at all.

Two years later, the worry described by Gates remains — while the primary response from the military services has most often been silence and a denial of the problem. As I’ve noted before, and as Gates pointed out in his West Point speech, the Army (and military writ large) is competing for talent with Google — not a 1950s widget factory. And it is going to start losing, dramatically.

It does not have to be so. There is no reason not to listen and respond to the concerns of younger officers — while also fully meeting the needs of the service. But you can’t do it with a World War II mindset, an insular outlook, or an Industrial Age personnel system — all of which are markedly in evidence today. And in the coming years, throwing money at the problem is not likely to be as easy as in the past.

So what must the senior military leadership — the service secretaries and four-star generals — do?

First, know your talent inventory. Make sure you can identify your performers — the top 1, 5, and 25 percent, and subsequent percentages below. Measure your attrition against each category, and hold your personnel managers accountable for keeping as many of those in the top tiers as possible and disproportionately shedding poor performers. If the reverse happens — if the best leave and the worst stay — you have failed.

Know your intellectual capital, which may not always correlate with your “top performers.” Know what percentages of your officers score in the top mental categories at each rank to monitor potential loss of intellectual capital. Look for non-standard undergraduate degrees and unusual life experiences and find a way to weight those factors.

Know your outliers. Exceptionally gifted individuals often struggle in their one-size-fits-all initial assignments, and their early ratings may reflect poor performance rather than growing pains. The best platoon leader in a brigade may not grow up to be the best four-star strategic leader. Collect every leader’s SATs and GREs and analyze against who fits where on the performance curve, and fight to avoid wholesale losses of your future intellectual capital. Balance current performance against intellectual potential as you shape the force.

Empower your personnel managers — and hold them accountable — to create the coming smaller force with the performance and intellectual specifications you want. Don’t let the end result of who stays in fall to happenstance or whim, and don’t accept marginal outcomes because it’s simply too hard to individually manage top performers and sharp thinkers. Demand that managers incentivize the best to stay, and rigorously examine quality leaders who depart so you can correct the system. Don’t settle for mediocrity and call it success.

Get your field commanders into this fight. Require them to take on the mission of keeping the best on board. The best will already be doing this. Give them access to strong retention incentives — graduate schooling, assignment overrides, broadening opportunities — that can be decentralized to those on the cutting edge who know talent the best. Insist commanders at all levels in the field make this a top priority.

Finally, find a way to give today’s officers more of a voice in their assignments and in their lives. If there is one key generational difference between today’s young officers and those of my generation (and there are many), expecting a voice in their future is the one that most stands out — for the officer, for his or her spouse with a separate career, and for their family. One answer may be the creation of “yellow pages” to apply for assignments as Tim Kane suggests. Officers and their families want choices, not simply orders. Another is simply more humane one-on-one dialogue between human resources directors and individual officers. During a rapid drawdown, the human resources impetus is to “dump” officers, and no one is held accountable for the ensuing quality drain as many of the best exit. That meat-ax approach to management has to end if the military is to retain critical talent in this drawdown as a hedge against a very dangerous world.

It’s time to listen to Kane and Gates — they have it mostly right. Senior service leaders must take a harder look at themselves in the mirror when defending a 60-year old personnel system. It is 2013, not the Mad Men era of 1963. And sustaining the military preeminence of the United States starts with a uniquely American ideal — cultivating the best and brightest, so they can lead the force into a dangerous future. It should be the first priority of today’s senior military leaders, not their last.

Lt. Gen. David Barno (ret.) was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

5 Replies to “Military Brain Drain The Pentagon’s top brass is driving away all the smart people. By David Barno”

  1. I almost made this post on FB but then thought better of it…strategery, right?

    Honest open dialog can only get someone so far in my opinion. If you grew up in the bureaucratic system from your first days, you slowly realized the truth in the following statement, no matter what you believe: “Cadets cheered, junior officers were encouraged, and the bureaucracy changed not at all.” The most idealist of incentives are overshadowed by a realism that says a handful of your leaders will really care, but the system won’t, and your leaders won’t be able to do much to protect you from it. My leaders have helped me in nearly everything I have asked for in the AF, not just handed me what they have been told to give me, but put themselves our there for it. It has been quite humbling, but I fear the masses don’t have that; which is sad because I am far from best and brightest of which this article refers. I am more of an asteroid that occasionally sparkles compared to the many awesome folks I have met.

    We all know what we signed up for, or thought we knew, but our families didn’t know, at least not fully. As the addage goes, behind every successful man is a successful women, and I would argue that the saying holds true for military spouses. Why then do our professional spouses have an unemployment rate of 28%? That doesn’t mean 28% percent aren’t employed, it means 28% of the fully qualified spouses trying to become employed can’t find employment. My wife, the smart one with 2 residence graduate degrees and over a decade of experience in her field, had to apply for over 30 jobs before landing a low-balled part-time gig so that she could finally fill the gap on a resume left by an overseas assignment, and our military system was of little help. Social networking was her salvation, although the first step in that process was a former military member…not only did she understand the pain, but she is a great person to boot.

    I am not whining, or lookig for sympathy, but raising this question: how far is an educated familyman willing to continue down such a rabbit hole for the looming prize of a 365? If you rock the boat too much you are cast asunder, and if you just take your seat you become another a number.

    Like drones, one of the best ways to solve the problem is to keep bringing it up. Eventually the sick must accept the illness and get treatment, or ignore it and suffer. Again, I am not writing to vent or complain, but instead, be transparent. It all begs the question: can the guys in the middle help, and if so, how? Most won’t be school selects, so we have a limited ceiling and know that during our prime marketability years. If there was an answer, it would make many choices much easier, as many love serving but also know a bad business decision or life when they see one. Ideology can only take one so far.

    Sorry for the length….I am in paper writing mode.

    1. Great comments Vooj, I think we are simply better than that and the system needs to adjust. AND I am not sure I agree the the assignment system in the crux of the problem. Commander involvement is key…and as a commander we win some battles and lose a ton, but if the commander is not willing to step and engage in the fight he/she is wrong. The problem is–there is really no reward for the fight and usually you are viewed as a “trouble maker” when you rock the boat. Hence I believe the title for my retirement book (which I am sure I will at least sell a dozen copies) is “Rouge Commander or Enlightened Rebel.” I am not sure which title is appropriate…but I do believe we can get better in helping our people… and in the end the DoD will be MUCH better and stronger for it. There is no crying in baseball…. I don’t think this is whining it’s simply communication, collaboration and creative thinking… its how we fight crisis, complexity and confusion… its also how we continue to be the best fighting force in the world…

      1. I don’t believe the assignment system is the crux of the problem either, but it is one the few examples I have experienced so far. The military has been surprisingly progess socially, but tends to fall behind within its own cultural development…if that makes any sense. With the threats of mass reductions and cuts, it seems leaders are actually looking at the real problems and speaking out. We now see the JCS telling the Senate what they really feel, and have great leaders who listen to their people (Gen. Welsh among others), so it provides hope in a cultural change. The hope will keep more people around longer, but at some point the change must follow. My biggest hope, is that the men and women whom Kahne writes about, if they stay in, don’t forget about the issue and create changes based on history.

        There will always be attrition, but if the culture opens up, many on the fence will have much easier decisions and we will retain even more quality soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. We need more to look at more Google models and less GM archetypes but “raging against the machine” can get tiring, even when done politely.

  2. I worked in a corporation which treated talent retention much the same way, i.e. “who cares if they go?” Until we started asking leaders to tell us about the people who they regretted to see go. Then we asked them if they knew why they left and what it would have taken to keep them on board? The majority couldn’t answer those questions. Then we asked those “regretted losses” the same questions and used their responses as a mirror for the leaders. Because the leaders tended to respect the feedback from these “regretted losses”, they opened up for the recommendations the recommendations we then brought to start addressing the talent retention issue. Things didn’t change overnight, but we had finally put a crack in the “concrete”.

    1. Interesting take.. and would love to see that work in the military…my fear is, the General Officers might not even know one person that departed the military. At times it does seem senior leadership is very much removed from the day to day operations and concerns of the average Airman, Sailor, Soldier and Marine. I know that is a stereotype and not all live that way, but I believe it is a strong 90% that do. I do hear senior leaders talk about improvements…but I wonder if they will actually happen. We will see…but now is a really bad time to be bleeding talent.

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