West Point graduates: Why our best officers are leaving early
The U.S. military claims to support independent thinking and entrepreneurship among officers, but a survey of 250 West Point graduates suggests that conformity, not merit, is rewarded.
Today, the Atlantic magazine's January/February issue was published, which features an essay Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving by yours truly. I'll share a snippet of the essay here, then follow with some comments about putting together the research and writing behind the 5-page article.Skip to next paragraph
Writer, Kauffman’s Growthology.org
Tim works in research and analysis at the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepeneurship. (Growthology)
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Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving
Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector? An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it’s not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit. As a result, it’s losing its vaunted ability to cultivate entrepreneurs in uniform.
By Tim Kane
John Nagl still hesitates when he talks about his decision to leave the Army. A former Rhodes Scholar and tank-battalion operations officer in Iraq, Nagl helped General David Petraeus write the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual, which is credited with bringing Iraq’s insurgency under control. But despite the considerable influence Nagl had in the Army, and despite his reputation as a skilled leader, he retired in 2008 having not yet reached the rank of full colonel. Today, Nagl still has the same short haircut he had 24 years ago when we met as cadets—me an Air Force Academy doolie (or freshman), him a visiting West Pointer—but now he presides over a Washington think tank. The funny thing is, even as a civilian, he can’t stop talking about the Army—“our Army”—as if he never left. He won’t say it outright, but it’s clear to me, and to many of his former colleagues, that the Army fumbled badly in letting him go. His sudden resignation has been haunting me, and it punctuates an exodus that has been publicly ignored for too long.
... It would be easy to dismiss Nagl’s story, except you hear it almost every time you talk to a vet. In a recent survey I conducted of 250 West Point graduates (sent to the classes of 1989, 1991, 1995, 2000, 2001, and 2004), an astonishing 93 percent believed that half or more of “the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.” By design, I left the definitions of best and early up to the respondents. I conducted the survey from late August to mid-September, reaching graduates through their class scribes (who manage e-mail lists for periodic newsletters). This ensured that the sample included veterans as well as active-duty officers. Among active- duty respondents, 82 percent believed that half or more of the best are leaving. Only 30 percent of the full panel agreed that the military personnel system “does a good job promoting the right officers to General,” and a mere 7 percent agreed that it “does a good job retaining the best leaders.”
Back in the spring of 2010, I started questioning the capacity of the Army to conduct expeditionary economics and/or counterinsurgency. While I am an advocate of both missions (strategies), and also an advocate of the amazing talent in the U.S. military, I couldn't shake the suspicion that the military bureaucracy would frustrate such efforts. Put simply, how does an anti-entrepreneurial organization reconcile entrepreneurial leaders and an entrepreneurial mission? Not well. Of course, the military isn't a failure by any stretch, but the hierarchical structure can be problematic, and over the years, I have seen too many good leaders leave in frustration to feel confident.
I remain thankful for the supportive climate at the Kauffman Foundation which gives us the freedom to ask deep, complex questions and champion entrepreneurship, wherever it may be (or may be repressed).