One of the great challenges facing the Army is bleeding talent. In times of downsizing “brightsizing” where the best and the brightest self select to leave is a real problem. Frustrated with the rules, regulations, and oftentimes petty bureaucracy of the Army, those who can, won’t. That is, they know they are smart enough, and perform well enough that they can be confident of success in other endeavors.
It is one thing when a bright junior officer who never planned on making the Army a career departs for greener pastures. But when a Captain, who found Company Command to be the most rewarding experience of their life leaves, that hurts the Army.
The Barefoot Strategist, writing at Medium’s The Bridge, argues that the Army’s Officer Evaluation Report System (OER) and the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) contribute to this drain of talent.
Some see the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA, as forcing the Army into a system that recognizes seniority over ability, stifles innovation, constrains its flexibility to recognize and fast track the highest performers to positions of greater responsibility, ultimately chasing the most talented and productive officers out of the service. Dr. Tim Kane is an outspoken critic of DOPMA. In his book Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution, he advocates scrapping DOPMA completely and transitioning the military to a management system more in line with the largest corporations in the United States.
Currently, when an officer is rated, the best possible score is “Above Average.” Well then, that, as Barefoot notes, puts our stellar leader in a pool of no less than 49% of his peers. But as you and I, and Barefoot know, there exists in every group a handful of truly outstanding performers, and then there’s the rest of us. But given the current structure of the OER and the DOPMA, it’s almost impossible to clearly identify those “fast burners.” Oh, a commander can try some narrative. But often times, a real “comer” works for a guy that writes only so well, while the less qualified guy in another unit works for a true wordsmith, and comes out sounding like Clausewitz’s little brother.
The OER and DOPMA process is structured the way it is to do as much as humanly possible to promote fairness. And that’s a seemingly laudable goal. Checks are in place so that one instance of poor chemistry between an officer and his rater won’t destroy that officer’s career.
Barefoot argues for a system better able to recognize and promote that thin slice of the talent pool that truly is head and shoulders above the competition.
Coincidentally, I happened to start reading a biography today of Edward Pellew, arguably the single most successful frigate captain the Royal Navy ever produced. A real “comer” and “fast burner” if there ever was one.
Pellew started out as a ship’s boy, rose to Able Seaman, and was recognized as officer potential, eventually being rated Master’s Mate, and eventually Midshipman. His promotion to Lieutenant, Master and Commander, and eventually Post Captain all came about through patronage. That is, his captains and others put in a good word for him and argued for him with the Admiralty.
The normal path to success in the Royal Navy in those days was through wealth and family connections. But even so, there remained a path that successful, influential officers could see to it that talented people with less than proper credentials were given the chance to succeed.
How should we identify the truly talented and dedicated in our ranks?