Sport teams ironically illustrate what the military has forgotten: The best players always should be selected from a diverse population after a performance-based selection process.
The NFL’s combine is a great example. While it doesn’t always predict the best performers, it’s hard to imagine the NFL only picking players based on subjective recommendations from college coaches or external needs for inclusion.
Why are sports teams inherently better at designing a system for screening and selecting performance when outcomes for predictive failures do not result in the deaths of young talent entrusted by America’s mothers and fathers?
Leadership determines organizational performance more than all other characteristics. Thus, the criticality of organizational screening, training and selection of senior leadership is of the utmost importance.
But in the current U.S. military system ― other than influence from the president, Congress and political secretaries within the Defense Department ― the American people are relegated to military leaders internally produced within a nepotistic system.
U.S. military leaders have many good qualities, to be sure, but aggregate shortfalls in courage and performance are well-documented since the creation of the post-World War II national security model. Recent sensational examples, like Benghazi, Libya, or Afghanistan aside, the military’s inability to achieve political objectives in Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia, Kosovo, Libya, Iraq or Syria should clearly indicate a team needing new leadership.
In any other business model, consistent failure would result in new leadership, but this has not been the case for the American military.
Problems have festered for so long that simply changing out top level leaders no longer fixes the military’s foundational problems. Is it even possible for the American military system to produce senior leaders capable of superior performance?
Fundamentally changing how the military system produces leaders must be explored by the next presidential administration.
Moral courage in our current system
The American military system is influenced by many historical literary works, but none more important than Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz’s book, “On War.”
In a chapter on military genius, Clausewitz described military leaders’ need for courage: “Courage is of two kinds: courage in the face of personal danger, and the courage to accept responsibility, either before the tribunal of some outside power or before the court of one’s own conscience.”
Unfortunately, Clausewitz specifically stated he would not explore the second quality, moral courage, in his book. He didn’t understand or didn’t care to explore a military system’s influence on leadership quality, or, by extension, the military’s overall performance. Said succinctly, there can be no military genius if the system doesn’t allow it.
The problem with the current military system is that it degrades moral courage over time.
It compels subordinates to please superiors for high subjective evaluations, many times at the expense of performance and honesty. This people-pleasing system is further weakened by a need for fairness, inclusion and timecard punching instead of performance.
It’s worth noting that the term “general” officer literally denotes that an officers’ background is irrelevant. These officers theoretically are generalists possessing a war-fighting ability superior to all others.
A “general” officer is someone graduating from military apprenticeship by demonstrating mastery in all aspects of military warfare.
However, reality demonstrates that America’s general officers are selected for an infinite number of reasons other than war-fighting performance. The need for inclusion and fairness affects all things.
The next U.S. president must dramatically reshuffle this entire process. A needed shock to the dying system would be a performance-based war game for all general officers, which would determine continued military service and advancement.
The first round of losers should be sent home to retirement. The subsequent rounds should determine the most prestigious positions for America’s general officers.
The details of the competition no doubt would be heavily debated: No artificial competition would perfectly replicate the requirements of a general officer in war. But, ultimately, any war-fighting competition illustrating performance is better than the current system.
The American people and junior service members cannot expect military leadership to embrace my proposed reforms. Asking current military leaders to acknowledge the system’s shortfalls would marginalize their own leadership ascension while simultaneously threatening their personal power accumulation. Only strong political leadership and direction will break the grasp.
When military leaders rise to positions of power based on performance, in critical moments, they are more likely to rely on their instincts than antiquated rules or opinions. These instincts, screened by performance, are expected by the American people.
If an opinion-based system degrades moral courage, a performance-based system strengthens it.
In the antiquated system, military leaders conditioned to patiently wait, please superiors and respect fairness over talent are far more likely to fold than fight.
While Clausewitz may not have fully explored the need for a performance based military system or what that meant in terms of moral courage, he clearly understood the critical nature of moral courage in military leadership.
Can the American military system, pulling from a large, diverse and talented American population, produce senior leaders of a higher quality? Yes.
But it will require that the next president demonstrate a courage and performance currently missing from America’s senior military leadership.
Stuart Scheller is a best-selling author and former lieutenant colonel infantry officer. He resigned from the Marine Corps as part of a plea deal after speaking out on social media against military leadership about the 2021 Abbey Gate attack in Kabul.