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.
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I began putting together a set of questions that I posed to friends and contacts in the national security space. That quickly became an informal survey that was generating powerful, and shocking, responses from veteran friends. By mid-summer, I knew this needed to be formalized in an unbiased way. That is, I needed to find a way to survey officers that were representative of military opinion. If the Army's officers themselves could be shown to have lost faith in the Army's personnel system, that was explosive. It meant that any mission or strategy risked failure, any war risked being lost. It doesn't take much to connect the dots from good Human Resources to good execution.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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The challenge was how to get at the population of officers, active and retired/discharged. I initially tried to get the survey in front of active duty troops, but that was a challenge on multiple levels. It was somehow fitting that I couldn't pierce the bureaucracy to get the survey approved. Then I had an insight, inspired by a friend of mine named James Sanchez. James was a classmate from the Air Force Academy class of 1990 (Mighty 90 he would say) who was our class scribe. He kept us in touch over the last 20 years, but passed away suddenly in late 2009. I suddenly realized that James would have loved this idea, and he would have gladly passed along a note to recruit our classmates to participate in a survey. So, I reached out to a dozen West Point class scribes, and six of them offered to help send out a blind survey recruitment email.
The result is a 250-respondent voluntary survey of West Point graduates, which I posted early this morning in the form of a working paper on SSRN. Even now, the results shock me. I just hope they shock enough people in the National Security establishment to generate action. Ending the central planning of HR in 2011 isn't as sexy as ending the draft in 1973, but I am convinved that both are essential if we want our military to be innovative, to win wars, and to win the peace that follows.
It would be wrong to close this without acknowlding the hundred or more people who advised me as I worked on this project. I can't name them all, but Jeff Peterson, Mike Meese, and John Nagl stand out. These men allowed me to interview them without knowing the final product. Maybe that's natural in the world of journalism, but not in my experience as an officer. I made sure I quoted them accurately, but the final product they saw today along with the rest of the world. Likewise, the team at Kauffman has been extraordinary, from Carl Schramm down to my research assistants, especially Alyse Freilich. No words can thank Ben Wildavsky enough, as he surgically critiqued an early draft, leading to the revised draft that was ultimately seen and accepted by the editors at The Atlantic. On that score, thanks to the editors and fact-checkers there, who made the piece stronger (and I'm not sure what protocol is here, but will leave them nameless for now). The errors that remain, surely there are a few, are entirely mine.
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