Book Review

Bleeding Talent

- How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why Its time for a Revolution

Author — Tim Kane

Introduction

1. The book has been written by a USAF officer who has dabbled into entrepreneurship and is presently an academician. Therefore, the author brings the passion for the uniform, insight of business and the rigor of academics to a problem which many would think didn’t exist in the US military. Whilst the book labours to bring out that armed forces lose talent to the corporate world in view of the ‘steep pyramid promotion structure’ through various arguments and data, the issue is universal, and therefore, the idea on its own is not a novel topic of discussion.

2. The author, however, proceeds to take down other underlying issues, layer by layer, which are not related to the promotion structure but account for a large no. of great leaders leaving the US Army (military). Each of these factors have been supported not only by anecdotal references (which may be tarnished as the author’s personal bias by critiques) but also by data & survey oriented rigorous research. In addition to these, the author offers solutions to the central issue and that is what makes this book relevant and applicable to armed forces across the world.

About the Author

3. Timothy Joseph Kane is an American economist, currently serving as a research fellow at Hoover Institution. A former USAF intelligence officer, Kane founded multiple technology firms whilst pursuing his PhD in Economics. Kane served on the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress and was Director of the Centre for International Trade and Economics. In addition to the book under consideration, he has also co-authored “The Economics of Great powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America” with Glen Hubbard. A multi-faceted, personality Kane has also participated in politics and was a Republican candidate in Ohio’s 12th Congressional district elections in 2018.

Critical Analysis

4. A Cautionary Tale. The author sets the stage by clarifying assumptions and buttressing the ‘taboo’ of discussing problems in the military upfront, in a logical manner. The author clarifies that during the Vietnam war, US military was a conscription force and therefore, was not the darling of the masses. It was some great economists who showed the government that conscription was not only an emotional issue but also did not make any economic sense to the nation, thus paving the path of the military becoming a volunteer force. Contrasting the military’s reverence among the general masses today to the days of the Vietnam war, he puts forth the notion that due to its popularity today, the military’s refinement of internal processes for improvement has become stagnant. This is due to the fact that civilians criticising the military are not taken seriously and within itself the military is too bureaucratic to bring about any change matching the magnitude of ‘abolition of conscription’. Certain paradoxes which are critical of the current military system and need to be improved are thrown open for discussion by the author, viz.

(a) The story is not about how top Generals are chosen but about the thousands of men and women who are routinely assigned without any thought given to their individual skill sets, experience and aspirations just to keep the ‘tenure’ system going.

(b) Even Very aggressive CNOs and Secreary of Defense have been unable to take on the entrenched bureaucracy and change it despite their noble intentions.

© Surveys of both serving and retired officers revealed that the top performers during the academy and initial years as Captains and Majors are the first to leave. This is due to the belief that from performance evaluations to job assignments, the military operates more like a bureaucracy with an unionised workforce than a cutting edge meritocracy.

5. The Paradox of Military Leadership. The author acknowledges that he has been criticised for saying out loud what is whispered across the US military realm by serving and retired men and women. However, he is steadfast in pursuing his aim to make the US military, a great institution, revered by corporate America USA as a leadership factory, move ahead with times and stop the bleed of these great leaders. The author breaks down the thought process of Corporate bigwigs in hiring military leadership into few factors which make soldiers unique, viz. early responsibility of costly equipment and lives of men; training incessantly in operations and peace time; core value of ‘Service before Self’ etc. He then establishes an effective match between these qualities and entrepreneurship and proves that the best military leaders are a lot similar to the best entrepreneurs.

6. Entrepreneurs in Uniform and the Exodus. The author gives anecdotal references of many American officers who were entrepreneurial in everything they did whilst they were in service but were recognised only once they left the military. Examples like Lincoln’s return to military after 17 years of digging of roads and railroads being the reason for his use of trenches in his battles long before the World Wars, the OODA loop revolutionary Boyd or Sea Power Guru Mahan, when evaluated with standard bureaucratic methods of performance evaluation were deemed misfits.

7. Dealing with Personnel Bureaucratically Wins you Battles but not Wars. The short-sightedness of the bureaucracy and the holier than thou attitude of military leadership in the top echelons stifles criticism both from within and outside the military. Notwithstanding the same, the author suggests certain actionable features of what he defines as a ‘Total Volunteer Force’ (TVF). If implemented, TVF would help deal with personnel in a more empathetic manner and reduce the talent drain to the corporate world. These suggestions are presented by the author based on the response he received from both active duty and retired service members and is thus representative of the voice of a large no. of officers. These features are as follows:-

(a) Eliminate ‘Year Groups’ after ‘10’ Years. Eliminating the notion of year groups after the first ten years would expand the pool of candidates and increase competition across year groups.

(b) Allow greater Specialisation. Allow people to remain Captains and Majors for longer than the norm in order to become deeply competent in specific roles. As an example, there would be a no. of officers who preferred to be in command of troops rather than shift to staff positions and vice versa.

© Expand Early Promotion Opportunities. Allow opportunities for differentiation amongst junior officers with early promotions. This system already exists wherein, ‘Field Major’ promotions are implemented to tide over shortages of officers. However, the author suggests to use the same mechanism to differentiate amongst junior officers in the normal course.

(d) Allow former Officers To Rejoin Service(Lateral Entry). This principle is utilised by many governments to re-invigorate the bureaucracy. It may be noted that retired officers would be required to be brought in as reserve forces in case of a war, but bringing them back as a policy even in peace time and increasing competition is the novel suggestion of the author.

(e) Use a Market Mechanism to allocate jobs instead of Central Placement. The sorest spot amongst officers, a market mechanism would empower officers to apply for any open slot advertised internally whilst safeguarding the central planner’s authority to select amongst applicants.

(f) Lay off more Officers Involuntarily. The military rarely lays off its worst performers, whilst absolute job security has advantages, there are considerable pitfalls too.

(g) Force a distribution of top and bottom 10 -20 % in Evaluations.

(h) Allow former soldiers to use GI bill as a start up loans instead of educational loans

(j) Expand academies to include graduate school

(k) 360 degree evaluations

Key Takeaways

8. The author’s views may not directly apply to the Indian armed forces, but a careful evaluation would not only find some synchronisation between his thought process about the US military and the Indian counterpart, but also find that his suggestions to attain an ‘All Volunteer Force’ do have a universal appeal. Some of the suggestions are too revolutionary and need a nation-wide debate, for eg. allowing lateral entry, forced lay off, eliminating year groups, early promotions etc. There are a few of them which have already been implemented in some form , for eg. forcing distribution of top and bottom performers in evaluations, academies to include graduate schools, etc. However, the low hanging fruits which may be considered for immediate implementation are a ‘market mechanism for jobs’ which will translate to ‘greater specialisation and job satisfaction’.

Conclusion

9. The author’s balanced presentation of various view points instead of jingoistic representations of his own thought process, a problem often seen when ex-military officers criticise the military, ensures that the reader looks at the problems, issues and suggestions in a logical manner. This, I believe is the greatest asset of this book.

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