Poor leadership is driving soldiers to leave the Army, reinforcing the service’s push to make leader development a top priority. The results come from a survey by the Army Research Institute that showed 26 percent of sergeants and staff sergeants and 23 percent of lieutenants and captains surveyed planned to leave the Army after completing their current service obligations.
Of those, 35 percent of enlisted and 26 percent of officers cited the quality of leadership at their duty stations as a reason for leaving.
Poor leadership was the top reason selected by the active-duty enlisted survey participants and the third-most popular reason among the active-duty officers surveyed. Among noncommissioned officers, leadership concerns were a greater motivation to quit than the relentless pace of deployments.
“Leadership has always been the most important factor in determining whether young officers will remain within our ranks or not,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said in an email to Army Times. “The pace of operations over the past 10 years has placed added pressure on leader development, and although they add to our versatility, our modular structures have altered the traditional pattern of senior and subordinate relationships. We’re doing well, but never good enough in this important aspect of our profession.”
Dempsey said he has not seen the survey. But in his first week on the job, Dempsey blasted the pace of promotions, suggesting that it puts people in leadership positions before they are ready.
“We’re promoting 95 to 98 percent of captains to major, 93 or 95 percent of majors to lieutenant colonel. We shouldn’t be satisfied … because 98 percent of captains don’t deserve to be promoted to major. Statistically, that’s an infeasible percentage. And we’ve got to do the same thing on the noncommissioned officer side.”
Too many soldiers are promoted based on seniority instead of merit, said Sgt. Kevin Doyle, in response to a query posted on the Army Times website. He wrote that he will be leaving the Army after he completes his current service obligation.
“I’ve seen good NCOs and officers who should be wearing one or two stripes or bars led by men who’ve simply served longer,” said the two-tour veteran of Afghanistan. “Instead of promoting those who create results, we keep in dinosaurs that meet an easy standard and continue to slide under the radar.”
Doyle also said he has seen an “almost total lack of concern” on the part of company commanders and first sergeants for their soldiers.
“During my last tour soldiers went without serviceable uniforms for months, incorrect pay for the entire tour, and were abandoned during [demobilization] by the organic leadership of my unit,” he said. “This is inexcusable. I was taught that I would stay with my soldiers until the job was done, not split when the going got tough or problems developed.”
Sgt. 1st Class Erik Wilkins, a senior maintenance instructor at Fort Hood, Texas, explained why many of the soldiers who come through his classes plan to leave the Army.
“The Army lacks leadership, it lacks leaders who have compassion to understand that they have to do their job as leaders,” he said. “I understand we all want to go home at night, but if a soldier needs you, you drop everything because most of them don’t have anyone else.”
Wilkins said the problem stems from promoting soldiers to E-5 before sending them to school.
“Even if you’re going through all these deployments, you still have to take the initiative to know what your duty is as an NCO,” he said. “You still have soldiers looking up to you.”
A 30-year career in the Army is not a right but a privilege, said Lt. Gen. Jack Stultz, chief of the Army Reserve, who has also put his focus on quality leadership.
“Part of shaping the force is shaping the leadership, and what that means is if you have poor leaders, they need to be gone,” he said. “I tell [soldiers] it takes time, but I’m doing everything I can to identify where we have poor leadership and get them out of the force.”
Sometimes good leaders are just worn out, Stultz said, but there are those who don’t want to put in the effort.
If you are “a mediocre leader… you need to leave,” he said. “When you’ve got a person who’s not meeting the standards, who’s not performing, you as a commander owe it to your soldiers to bring this person in and counsel them, and if they don’t improve, you need to write that person up. I can’t afford to have a poor commander leading soldiers in combat.”
The Army has had several high-profile firings. Two brigade commanders and a battalion commander were relieved of command; another was criticized for neglect that created a climate of misconduct within his brigade. In addition, nine officers were reprimanded for their failure to detect and report problems with the accused Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan.
For the past 10 years, the Army has been focused on meeting the demands in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Charles Allen, a retired colonel who is now a professor of cultural science at the Army War College.
“The biggest concern I have is we’re putting people in positions of responsibility, in some cases, where, if they had the education and the school environment, they could be better at the skills that are required to be successful in the jobs they’re assigned to,” he said.
As the Army prepares to withdraw from Iraq and possibly reduce its forces in Afghanistan, soldiers may have more time and opportunity to get the professional military education they need, Allen said.
“If we are facing some sort of personnel reduction in the future, how do we retain the talent we’ve built over the last 10 years?” he said. “We have an uncertain future. We need a broader experience base among our officers.”
Leaders in the Army must have character, presence and intellect, capable of creative and critical thinking, Allen said.
“You want a young sergeant who has integrity, you want him to have the presence to lead other soldiers and you want him to be able to make decisions that are life-and-death,” he said. “The same thing applies to lieutenants and captains in a unit. And it also extends up to senior officers. You want them to be known for integrity, you want them to garner respect.”
Allen advocates sending officers and enlisted to their required PME courses but also giving them opportunities for unconventional assignments, such as working with another federal agency or partnering with industry.
“The Army is at this fork in the road,” he said. “With reduced budgets and downsizing, some hard choices have to be made. If we get distracted from leader development, that’ll be a problem.”
Leader development must be non-negotiable, Allen said.
“You could probably crank out more trucks for combat. You can probably buy someone else’s airplanes. You could probably increase the strength of your ranks in the field, but it’s hard to bring in a commander with 12 to 18 years of service to run our fights,” he said. “If we don’t develop the leaders, both [noncommissioned officers] and officers, who will be able to address the challenges of the future, we’ll put ourselves at risk and the nation at risk.”
A chief warrant officer deployed to Afghanistan, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisal, said he believes the Army’s “current generation of leaders is more toxic than sustainable.”
“From the team leaders to the brigade commander, anyone affected by these persons can point out the bad leader,” he said.
The leaders today lack professional development, the chief warrant officer said.
“We move officers into a position and quickly out to check the block and make room for the next person,” he said.
Sometimes, the chief warrant officer said, some people don’t want to be leaders, nor should they be.
“What happens when you put a person in charge that does not want to be there?” he said. “You get a poor product even from their best effort.”
The chief warrant officer called for change to “improve leadership and better weed out toxic leaders.”
“We see poor and toxic leaders eliminated at the O-5 and higher level regularly,” he said. “How many people suffered in their hands up to the point of O-5? We need better assessments, we need to improve our education system, and we need to change the part of our culture that says it’s not OK to remain an E-4 for years.”
Sgt. 1st Class Ashley Moye, a senior contracting observer and trainer at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., said he has been fortunate to have had good leaders throughout his 13-year Army career, but he has also come across leaders who show a lack of concern for their subordinates and who are overly concerned about their own advancement.
“One of the things I harp on is we have tenets of leadership, leading by example, knowing your soldiers, knowing your jobs, doing the right things and setting the example for your soldiers,” he said. “Today, those things are not done. Everybody gets the impression that leadership is a trait we all possess. But it’s taught, and we’re not being taught properly.”