The Army is Not for Everyone

The Army is not for everyone.  More often than not, this phrase is a not-so-thinly veiled critique of those leaving the service, either on their own terms or not.  Proponents of this phrase tend to mention how only a small percentage of the population serves and how much more selective the military is compared to colleges or the civilian workforce.  While I acknowledge that not everyone meets the physical and mental requirements for service, that is not to say they cannot be of value elsewhere.  Just like not everyone has what it takes to be a soldier, not everyone has what it takes to be the next Stephen Hawking or Olympic athlete. Given the fact that I am not a prior service officer, I will primarily speak from an officer’s perspective from here on forward.

A Thinking Trap

From my observations, there is one commonality amongst those who champion this elitist mindset – they need the Army more than the Army needs them.  Truth is, everyone in the Army is replaceable and the system is designed that way so no loss of personnel would lead to a permanent loss in capability. 

However, those who look down upon service members who choose to leave tend to have a difficulty conceptualizing that they are not as mission critical as they believe. 

They will portray service with a holier than thou attitude and will mention perks such as pension and free healthcare to incentivize subordinates to stay in.  This attitude is at best misinformed if not downright arrogant.  The notion that all service members are contributing to our nation more than any civilian is both short-sighted and further contributing to the civilian-military divide.  The COVID pandemic is a perfect example to refute that notion.  Essential workers such as healthcare professionals worked tirelessly to combat the rapidly spreading disease, more so than the majority of service members.  This is not to fault the service members for lack of contribution.  Rather, it is a byproduct of the national situation and what was needed. 

Admittedly, I once fell into the trap that if someone is not the best fit for the Army, they were somehow a less capable, less useful human being to society.  After seeing several soldiers successfully transition to the civilian sector and excel, I realize how foolish my previous beliefs were.  The Army as a whole requires a plethora of diverse skillsets and abilities but it does not encompass every skillset out there.  If someone is better suited for a job outside the military, it is their responsibility to put their skills to better use and it is the responsibility of their leadership to enable them to do so.  

So What’s Missing?

Currently, there is a widely acknowledged retention issue throughout the ranks.  Daniel Pink, author of Drive[1], states that there are three factors that motivate individuals and increase their overall job satisfaction – autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Lack of job satisfaction is one of the top reasons many junior officers are leaving the Army for the civilian sector and can be attributed to their experiences lacking in the aforementioned three factors.

Autonomy is oftentimes quite limited in the Army.  Army doctrine preaches mission command as its preferred philosophy for executing tasks but in reality, most units operate under detailed command.  A simplified way to view the differences between the two is that mission command is more of a bottom-up approach to leadership while detailed command is a top-down approach.  Mission command requires a level of trust and acceptance of risk that most units do not possess, especially in the conventional Army where the majority of members are assigned, not selected. Thus, most units default to detailed command and that inherently stifles creativity and initiative, which in turn leads to subordinate leaders feeling their input is less valued.

Mastery is improving one’s skills but too often for officers, it is limited to mandatory professional development schools (Basic Officer’s Leaders Course, Captain’s Career Course, Airborne, Air Assault, etc.) rather than training that the officer desires to better himself.  The Army offers broadening opportunities but being able to partake in those opportunities depends heavily on factors such as the officer’s timeline, performance evaluations, and their units’ willingness to let them go. The last point oftentimes becomes a point of contention as many units will state that a certain officer is “mission essential” and will refuse to let them pursue the developmental opportunities they desire. This certainly does not align with the concept of “people first”, which is the Army Chief of Staff’s number one priority.  

Purpose is having the desire to do something with meaning and significance.  Many young officers, myself included, joined for a number of reasons, to include honorable service to our country.  As my career progressed, I began to re-look at what service meant.  Going back to my previous point regarding COVID, it was clear to me that I was not somehow magically “serving my country” more than a doctor or nurse, not even close.  Doing garrison type work certainly did not fit my description of service and truth be told, neither did my work as an intel officer downrange.  We were told countless times downrange that our purpose was to “defend the homeland” but there was no real explanation of how our actions contributed to that – it was a hollow mantra echoed by the leadership to provide an imagined sense of purpose.  Throughout my time at both West Point and the Army, I was told that we served in a profession of arms and that because we had a higher calling, this was different than merely having a job because we were not just doing it for the pay. However, when that purpose and higher calling become unclear or unknown, what are we left with? A job? And if money was not an important factor, then why are so many officers determined to make that magical 20-year mark?

How Do We Fix This?

Up to this point, I have only brought up the issues I have seen but the real question is, how do we fix this?  How do we move in the right direction and retain some of our best young officers?  Although I am approaching the end of my time in uniform and will always be grateful for the opportunity I had to serve, I recognize there are a plethora of talented junior officers who would love to continue their time in the military. I am concerned that the very issues that influenced me to leave will also influence their decision. Thus, I will address three ways forward – fixing the interconnected evaluation and promotion system, improving mentorship, and modifying the pay system based off duty position.

Many opportunities hinge upon an officer’s performance evaluations and their senior raters’ opinion of them – evaluations, promotions, and job opportunities are essentially intertwined.  Each evaluation has a block check for a projected Multi-Source Assessment Feedback (MSAF) date and counseling dates but there is no forcing function to ensure either are done properly or at all.  The MSAF offers anonymous feedback that can be beneficial to an officer’s self-assessment but as of now, evaluations can be submitted without any evidence that it was completed.  Even if the MSAF became mandatory, it would have no bearing on the quality of the evaluation unless it was purposely factored into the overall evaluation quality. Focusing on only the senior raters’ block check and write-up with no attention given to what the officers’ peers or subordinates thought of them gives a very one-sided and not holistic assessment.  Accordingly, there is a pervasive culture of sycophancy within the officer ranks, as evidenced by the phrase “not my rater, not my problem.” 

There is no such thing as a toxic leader, only a toxic person in a leadership position.  If the current promotion system continues to focus on a one-sided assessment, toxic command cultures will continue to be an issue and the Army will continue to bleed talent.

When I was still a cadet, the officer-in-charge (OIC) of our summer leadership detail had a unique approach to determining our military grades. Before the detail started, he had those in leadership positions (I was a cadet platoon leader) fill out a self-assessment sheet similar to an MSAF. It included listing individual strengths and weaknesses and what we wanted to focus on with our platoons. At the end of the detail, after the final field training exercise, our OIC secretly had our platoons fill out an evaluation sheet that included a word bank with all the adjectives and descriptions we put down for our strengths and weaknesses as well as what they thought our platoon priorities and focal points were. Our OIC compared the overall trend he saw in those assessment sheets to what we had put down and largely based our grade off of how well those two matched up. When he explained the rationale to us, he said too often leaders do not have an accurate sense of what is going on at their subordinate’s levels and this was a way to see if his top-down assessment of us matched the bottom-up assessment we had from our subordinates.

An oft criticized component of the current promotion system is that it leans too heavily on the senior rater assessment and does not take into account subordinate or peer assessment. If the Army adopted an approach similar to what my previous OIC did, that will help ensure a system of checks and balances amongst the different echelons of relationships for each officer. For example, an officer who seeks to appease only his senior rater at the expense of his subordinates will not likely receive favorable ratings from his peers and subordinates but an officer who seeks to appease only his subordinates at the expense of the mission will also not receive an overall high rating.

I recognize that the new Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP) system utilizes a similar approach but I think that approach should be also utilized at all echelons of command, not just for those slated for a command billet via Centralized Selection List (CSL). If we move in this direction and have better quality leaders at each level, I believe overall morale will improve and we will be better postured to enact our number one priority of “people first”.

Counseling is one of the best things the Army has implemented as an effective tool for mentorship but just like the MSAF, there is no real forcing function to ensure its completion let alone quality.  Similar to the MSAF, raters are required to annotate counseling dates but there is no burden of proof to show it was done and there is no implemented standard to ensure it is done properly.   Thus, there is a disconnect between many junior officers and their supervisors in terms of their career goals and how to best achieve them. This disconnect is why so many soldiers, NCOs, warrants, and officers alike feel that their organization does not care about them and thus do not feel obligated to put forth their best effort. This is not an indictment, just the reality of the situation considering human nature and the need for basic appreciation.

The Army is not a meritocracy, especially when it comes to its pay system.  A Captain (CPT) working as a rear detachment assistant operations officer makes the same base pay as a Company Commander who led his company through multiple Combat Training Center (CTC) rotations in preparation for a combat deployment.  While one is enjoying two-hour lunch breaks and figuring out ways to look busy, the other is putting in long hours and losing precious personal and family time to the rigors of command.  To add salt to the wound, while one may be competing with holdover CPTs who are transitioning out of the Army, the other is competing with other squared away CPTs who are also vying for a top block on their performance evaluation.  When many junior officers see and experience this, their natural reaction is to think their talents and efforts could be better utilized elsewhere, which oftentimes results in officers deciding to leave the service.

Too often, leaders subscribe to the notion that presence equals productivity and this is a contributing factor for why many subordinates stay late despite having no more work on their plate. 

Instead, if an officer’s performance is judged not on time spent but on output and the quality of that output, that would lead to a more merit-based system.

For those who are filling a position typically reserved for a higher rank or grade (i.e. First Lieutenant filling a company command billet, Sergeant First Class filling a First Sergeant role), I believe they deserve to be paid according to their duty position and not their current rank. There could be a standard for how much time they need to be in that position in order to receive higher pay. My recommendation would be 90 days or more because that is when the typical timeframe required to receive an performance evaluation. In addition to the higher pay, I also believe that rated time should count even if the leader in question is not of the appropriate rank yet. A counterpoint to this proposal might be that those leadership positions are a privilege and that it would go against the notion of selfless service. I agree that leadership positions are a position and not a right but financial stability is certainly a factor when it comes to retention. Soldiers are still people who have families to feed, mortgages to pay, and children going off to college.

Ultimately, the Army is in a constant struggle with the civilian world when it comes to retaining its officers. It is not just the constant deployments or CTC rotations that cause officers to want to leave but also the rampant talent management issue, lack of control over their careers, and lack of work-life balance. Every junior officer I have spoken to who is getting out has said the biggest factor in their decision to leave was due to one or more of the aforementioned factors. I recognize that the Army has created a Talent Management Task Force to address one of the salient issues and I believe that is certainly a step in the right direction. However, until effective measures are implemented to better align officers’ careers with their talents and offer better work-life balance and control within their careers, I do not foresee the retention issue going away and that is not wholly a bad thing – the civilian workforce needs talent as well and many veterans continue to serve in different capacities out of uniform. At the end of the day, the Army really is not for everyone but the perception that those who choose to leave could not “cut it” needs to change, especially if we want to bridge the current civilian-military divide.


[1] https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/autonomy-mastery-purpose.htm


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About the Author: Howard Zhou is a military intelligence officer in the US Army who has served in a variety of leadership and operational roles, both stateside and deployed. Previously he was an armor officer at Schofield Barracks, HI and is now transitioning out of the Army at Fort Bragg, NC.

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