Small Wars Journal

Loss of Confidence: The Failure of the Army’s Officer Evaluation and Promotion System and How to Fix It

Sun, 08/30/2015 - 3:41pm

Loss of Confidence: The Failure of the Army’s Officer Evaluation and Promotion System and How to Fix It

David J. Tier


The Army’s officer evaluation and promotion system has lost the confidence of many in the profession, as demonstrated by a string of scathing articles such as “Failure in Generalship” by Paul Yingling, “Military Brain Drain” by David Barno, and “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving” by Tim Kane, just to name a few. Further discussions in contemporary professional literature have brought the term “toxic leadership” into vogue and indicate that many more have become discouraged with the Army’s ability to select and promote its best leaders. A slew of disciplinary actions taken against senior officers have also turned heads, and have begged questions about how officers with such basic integrity failings rose so high in the ranks to begin with. Over the past several years, the Army has tacitly acknowledged systemic failures by radically changing its officer evaluation form, eliminating and then reinstating requirements to firmly judge its company-grade officers, masking lieutenant evaluations from promotion boards, and requiring all officers to complete new 360-degree feedback surveys. Far beyond fine-tuned adjustments to an otherwise well-functioning system, these changes indicate dissatisfaction with the results of the Army’s promotion selections. The quality of the Army’s senior leaders has demonstrated substantial room for improvement over the past decade. Although a great deal of damage has already been done to the profession with many quality officers either prevented from reaching their true potential or having been outright driven from service, the Army must correct its errors for the sake of the national defense. If uncorrected, it is an issue that will continue to lead to increased physical danger to the United States as well as a decline in their freedom of its citizens. This article seeks to describe the scope of the problem and offer a set of solutions to improve the situation. In short, to remedy all, the Army must reduce its emphasis on the subjective evaluations rendered by an officer’s chain of command, and add more objective evaluations that better measure the performance and potential of its officers. This will mitigate the impact of flawed human judgment and lessen the practice of playing favorites.

The Scope of the Problem

The Army has had a long-standing penchant for promoting bureaucratically savvy officers apt at pleasing their superiors at the expense of officers that increased their organization’s combat effectiveness. Only in wars when the nation fully mobilized, when danger to the nation’s vital interests and soldiers en masse were immediately at hand, has the Army sought to find officers best suited for its raison d’être: winning wars. Major General George McClellan was an administrative martinet that advanced high into the Army system during the Civil War but was an ineffective commander in battle. An otherwise washed-up officer but, as providence provided future President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant delivered the Union victories which advanced the nation’s cause. In the period between World Wars, the Army went so far as to court-martial the innovative thinker Brigadier General Billy Mitchell for his prescient and persistent advocacy of the then-nascent concept of airpower. During the Second World War, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall fired a number of ineffective generals that he deemed unfit, while also identifying the potential and overseeing the rapid ascension of an overlooked officer named Dwight D. Eisenhower. After a long period of few promotions, Eisenhower rose from lieutenant colonel to 5-star general in a mere 3 years (1941-1944)! Why weren’t the deserving officers advanced sooner and the rise of less qualified officers arrested more quickly? The same factors persist today. In an assessment of the Army’s 20th Century promotion systems, famed scholar Samuel Huntington concluded that the Army’s seniority-based favoritism and internal politics stifled promotion of its most effective officers.[1]

There is little need to explain why it would be best to establish a system that promotes its best officers before war breaks out rather than after. However, contemporary defense professionals share sentiments that the Army lacks such a system and, somehow, the flawed peacetime bureaucratic processes have managed to survive recent periods of war. In a recent survey, author and former Air Force officer Tim Kane found that 55% of mid-career active duty officers thought that the military promotion and assignment system should be radically reformed.[2] Consider that for a moment. Officers agreed not that the system needed modest or slight reform, but radical reform. Kane’s study found low levels of confidence in the Army’s system to promote its best officers and weed out its worst.[3]

Perhaps the most noteworthy criticism in the past 20 years came from Douglas Macgregor, an officer renowned for his tactical brilliance but gruff manner, who argued that officer evaluation reports (OERs) measured how well an officer got along with his rating chain rather than actual effectiveness, and that aides-de-camp enjoyed greater likelihoods for promotion than tactical leaders.[4] Macgregor observed that senior officers heavily rewarded unwillingness to question authority and punished officers who offered candid criticism upward in the chain of command.[5] Despite his superior performance as a squadron commander at the National Training Center, credential as a Ph.D. conferee, and recipient of a Bronze Star Medal for Valor in combat, he was passed over for brigade command and his career ended at colonel. The Army’s failure to promote Macgregor was based on something other than his ability to produce results.

Macgregor’s observations were correct. The main problem with today’s Army promotion system is that it heavily, if not totally, relies on the subjective judgments within OERs to stratify its officers. Subjective evaluations allow rating officials to cherry-pick which achievements and disappointments indicate top performances and runners-up, respectively. Up until this past year the single most—and probably only— important section of the OER was the senior rater box check. The box check has been the portion controlled by Human Resources Command (HRC) designed to prevent evaluator inflation which ensures that senior raters cannot give all subordinates top evaluations.

This concept had similarly been instituted in many civilian organizations. However, as other organizations have found, subjective evaluations like these tend to reward similarity in personality traits rather than effectiveness and potential.[6] Rating chains tend to reward those whose attitudes match their own, at the expense of those with different backgrounds, experiences, approaches, and achievements.[7] Furthermore, in situations where it is difficult to objectively compare two candidate’s performance due to the varying circumstances impacting them, studies have shown that evaluators tend to focus more on perceived level of effort to measure success as well as personal attributes shared between the evaluator and evaluated.[8] Given two equal performers, therefore, an evaluator will tend to give the harder working subordinate a higher rating than the other, even if the other subordinate possesses superior potential.[9] In this system a person’s effort is valued at a premium while their potential is discounted. Supervisors tend to recommend promoting subordinates that are struggling to accomplish too many tasks as well as ones that remind them of themselves. Only in the rare circumstances where two employees’ performance can be objectively compared, when each are charged with identical missions, provided identical resources, and operate in identical environments, can a rating official give an objective rating. The current system incentivizes spurious productivity and inefficiency. A prominent Army general recently observed “we confuse activity with progress,” evoking similar thoughts.[10] Does this sound like a possible explanation why successful officers work to exhaustion above the necessities of their tasks? Subordinates with different backgrounds, perspectives, or ambitions from their evaluator are disadvantaged in this system, and subordinates that ingratiate their superiors stand in better position.[11]

This leads the Army’s officer corps to become susceptible to groupthink. Writer Maureen Mylander once observed, “to become a general, and particularly to become a high-ranking one, an officer must conform, avoid error, shun controversy, and forego dissent.”[12] She noted that the fault was with the OER system itself since, because rating officials have “the power of God over their subordinates, it too often turns men of conviction into moral eunuchs. Worse, it protects the incompetent and fosters leadership through fear rather than inspiration.”[13] When the following two interests compete, the system promotes a culture that chooses to appease supervisors rather than defeat enemy on the battlefield.[14] After all, an officer’s rating chain renders the ever-so-important evaluation holding the key to promotion, not the enemy. Indeed, the Army has celebrated more promotions than tactical victories in the last 10 years.[15] An Army study in 1970 found similar systemic flaws that contributed to failures in Vietnam.[16] To this day, the system continues to reward selfish behaviors that hurt the organization.[17] Rating chains have been absolved to playing favorites, and raters have become absolutely powerful since their subjective judgments weigh so heavily in the promotion system. Officers advancing in this system exacerbate problems when they seek to reward the same behaviors they undertook to achieve success or, worse yet, when they actively block the advancement of high-potential officers advancing behind them that seemingly don’t pay enough reverence to their seniors.[18]

Beyond failures in theory, the system has had a number of problems in practice, as well. One problem has been that, in many cases, senior raters have infrequently come into contact with their subordinates. This makes the senior rater box check increasingly dependent on input from the first-line supervisor or, otherwise, overly influenced by the few interactions between senior rater and subordinate. The first-line supervisor is, therefore, de facto in charge of the overall evaluation without accountability in determining the final rating. This obfuscation of responsibility has given the chain of command even more power by shirking accountability of who actually gives the ratings. Each rating official may rest easy with the false sense of security that the other rater is more responsible. The new OER may rein-in this problem somewhat by giving first-line supervisors their own box check feature. However, the new OER does not remedy the basic problems of an officer’s potentially infrequent contact with his senior rater, a rating chain’s tendency to play favorites, nor does it address the challenge of reducing ambiguity while comparing officers that are assigned different missions, under varying conditions, and at uneven intervals. Rating officials can still deflate their ratings in this system.[19] They may withhold high ratings from deserving officers because there is no mechanism to compel raters to recognize excellent performers.

Promotion boards exacerbate flaws in the evaluation system by almost exclusively considering OER box checks while scoring promotion candidates. In promotion boards, board members strain to summarize the strength of each candidate’s file with a small-scale number score in a short period of time. Members must give each candidate a subjective rating based on their judgment of the candidate’s records. Furthermore, board members do not have sufficient time to examine the many detailed records of each candidate. Faced with the ambiguity of comparing dissimilar officers on different career paths, with diverse missions, various schools, and considering an assortment of other factors, the most objective criteria they can use to distinguish candidates is with the OER senior rater block check. Board members rarely have sufficient time to examine the narrative portions and, even if they did, the candidates would be judged on an uneven playing field. A given rating chain’s ability to describe a candidate’s achievements and potential supersedes the importance of the candidate’s actual performance and aptitude. The new OER dispenses with illusions that the narrative matter by significantly shrinking writing space for the respective portions. In brief, a candidate’s potential for promotion is almost solely determined by the number of senior rater top-blocks in their most recent rank.

Yet another problem with this system is that these subjective OERs are often exercised over small populations of officers working in the same branch when their promotions depend on comparisons between officers in different branches. Consider, for example, the fact that Army Special Forces (SF) officers typically compete for top blocks against each other in SF units rather than against officers throughout the Army. Would it surprise anyone to see that, because rated officers in one population are subject to the same rules and processes of a different population, appraisals of SF officers show little distinction between them and officers throughout the rest of the force? Raters and senior raters in SF units have no more “top blocks” to award than other units have, nor should they. This would not be a problem if SF officers simply competed for promotion only amongst themselves. However, they compete for promotion against a larger, mixed group of combat-arms branch officers whose ratings do not take into account the different levels of eliteness between branches. When considered for promotion, SF officers are essentially compared as equals with their conventional, general-purpose force colleagues. However, we know that due to the greater training and more selective screening criteria applied, it is a safe bet that the average SF officer is superior to the average Army combat arms officer. This factor similarly applies between units within the same branch since some units are considered more elite than others. The same is true for each the operations support and force sustainment group of branches, and units which are considered more elite than others. 

The final problem with this system has been poor policy enforcement. Poor enforcement undermines confidence when officers observe incongruities between what should be done and what is done,[20] which also allow the system to be manipulated. For example, few units follow the practice to properly comply with evaluation support form requirements. According to Army regulations, a rated officer and her chain of command should mutually develop quantifiable objectives for the rating period, conduct quarterly progress reviews and, in the end, the chain of command should determine the extent to which the rated officer achieved the objectives as a guide for the evaluation.[21] In practice, few rating chains establish objectives upfront and, at the end of a rating period, the rated officer submits a laundry list of tasks completed to remind (or inform) her chain of command of the rated officer’s accomplishments. If the rating chain ignores the initial support form requirements, the rating chain does not commit to the rated officer that they are even the same officials that will render the final evaluation. This allows rating chains to sometimes manipulate the system by changing the rating scheme in mid-stream. Units and rating chains can additionally manipulate the system by artificially controlling the sequence in which they submit evaluations to HRC. Timing of evaluations is very important for rating profiles since HRC verifies that a rating official’s box checks do not exceed prescribed limits. Consequently, each unit manages the sequence in which they send evaluations to HRC in order to maximize the number of “top blocks” a rater can issue. The evaluations do not necessarily arrive at HRC according to the date the evaluation was completed, and this enables rating chains to give advantages to favorites that are not afforded over other rated officers in the same profile. At times, senior raters have also manipulated the system by “pooling” officers, whereby senior officers inappropriately pull rating responsibilities higher in a chain of command so that an officer’s actual supervisor holds no rating duties over their subordinate. Furthermore, use of the junior officer support development form (JODSF) is seen as useless and largely ignored. Physical fitness data required on the OER is perfunctory and seldom scrutinized. Thus, several important features of the evaluation system have been ignored. The Army would discover widespread non-compliance if it inspected the quarterly reviews required by its policy. The failure to enforce established standards undermines the integrity of the system, of the Army as an institution, and the confidence in all who are a part of it. 

A contributing factor to all these problems has been the military’s “all-or-nothing” 20-year retirement scheme and, to a lesser extent, additional pay and allowances awarded to service members with dependents.[22] These lucrative benefits help undermine professionalism by holding mid-career officers at exceptional jeopardy to secure promotion or else forfeit years of creditable service, fostering dependence on the military system, and driving officers into cutthroat competition to maintain their livelihood.[23] However, since this is a military-wide problem rather than one specific to the Army, it is beyond the scope of this article to explore further or propose a solution.

These combined factors remain significant problems with the OER and the promotion system. If left unchanged, the system will continue to encourage bureaucratic gamesmanship at the expense of combat-effectiveness, ingratiation at the expense of candor, and continue producing homogeneous senior leaders that have been more successful at earning their boss’ favor than achieving true merit.[24] Independent thinkers will continue to be driven from the Army, and those that rise through the ranks will propagate the present system.[25] Correcting this system is important because, “more than any other factor, [promotion board results] tell officers what the Army really wants and expects.”[26] Indeed, many in the civilian sector have begun to advocate terminating the use of subjective performance appraisals since they have been so ineffective.[27]

How to Fix It

There are eight concrete reforms the Army should adopt in order to remedy shortcomings in its evaluation and promotion system. These solutions have three themes: striving to make comparisons as objective as possible, reducing the stranglehold that chains of command have on officer promotions, and restructuring educational and professional development gates. If promotion board members do not have sufficient time to consider the depth of each officer’s records, then the Army should institute new, independent evaluations to capture different aspects of an officer’s potential that are not sufficiently addressed in the present system. Boards should give these independent evaluations the same weight as OERs. This would reduce the overwhelming influence that an officer’s chain of command has on a potential officer’s promotion, but not break it, and relax a subordinate’s pressure to ingratiate superiors.

1.  Along the lines of Macgregor’s proposals that propose adding new performance appraisals from independent sources, the Army should augment existing OERs with a set of new evaluations that seek to objectively measure actions which increase the Army’s likelihood of success on the battlefield.[28] For instance, company commanders and higher should receive a formal evaluation from the opposing force (OPFOR) and Observe/Controller (O/C) team over the course of a Combat Training Center (CTC) rotation, while platoon leaders should receive an externally-administered tactical evaluation at home station that is inserted into the officer’s evaluation records. Each officer should also receive a periodic evaluation on their individual soldier skills. This would decrease the phenomenon of officers competing against one-another for their boss’ favor to some extent, and increase the entire unit’s collaborative competition against a common enemy (albeit simulated), or an otherwise objective standard.

Each time a unit conducts a rotation at a CTC, company commanders and higher should receive a written evaluation from the CTC that incorporates forced box-checks like the OER. A portion of the CTC rotation should consist of individual company, battalion and, if possible, brigade- level missions where OPFOR commanders could assess the blue force’s tactical performance at each echelon of command. Box checks should be tallied in comparison to previous unit’s CTC rotations. OPFOR commanders should be prohibited from personally meeting leaders of evaluated units until after they rendered their evaluation, thus isolating their appraisal to the unit’s tactical performance and preventing undue personal interaction from affecting the evaluation. O/Cs would evaluate the officer’s leadership skill and application of doctrine over the course of the whole rotation. This portion of the evaluation would be grounded in objective criteria established in Army Training and Evaluation Program manuals. The OPFOR and O/C ratings could be combined on a single form with separate, controlled box checks of these different raters, similar to the new OER. A beneficial effect of this proposal would be to place increased emphasis on assigning the best personnel to the OPFOR, since their independent evaluations would shape the careers of a new generation of leaders. As glamorized in the popular film “Top Gun,” the best-of-the-best should take the perspective of the enemy as OPFOR and evaluate the fighting force while maneuvering against them in simulated combat, not have CTC rotations governed by omnipresent O/Cs looking over the shoulders of tested units.

Platoon leaders should receive formalized, annual evaluations rendered by external units while at home station. In combat units, this should typically occur during live-fire exercises, such as with objective and structured Table XII exercises in armored units. External evaluators should come from a unit far enough from influence of the evaluated unit’s chain of command to ensure unbiased assessment of the unit’s performance. Platoons should be evaluated by leaders in different brigades, just as squad and crews tend to be evaluated by graders from different battalions under current practices. 

In a similar vein, each soldier and officer should receive a formal evaluation during an installation-wide process to test soldier skills such as physical fitness, common individual combat skills, and weapons marksmanship proficiency. Offered quarterly by a specially-selected team at the Division or garrison level but only required once per OER period, test results should be inserted directly into an officer’s Army records and, possibly, noted on the Officer Records Brief. This would serve as another performance indicator independent from the chain of command.

Officers with these CTC, external, and standardized testing evaluations should receive some promotion advantage over officers that have no such evaluations in their files. This would discourage officers from avoiding independent evaluations if their assignments permitted them to do so. However, as with many factors, this advantage must be weighed so as not to penalize officers that might be denied the opportunity to receive such evaluations for whatever reason. Only if all other factors are equal should this advantage decide a promotion. The evaluation and promotion process could achieve this balance by assigning evaluations a point score award. This leads to the next reform.

2. The Army must reduce the number of subjective judgments made by promotion board members while assessing personnel records. Much like the semi-centralized promotion processes for junior enlisted soldiers, each award, school, test result, OER and evaluation box-check should have a point score automatically assigned by the Army, and the subjective judgments of board members saved only for breaking ties. Although this may encourage efforts to “game” the system by incentivizing officers to pursue achievements that earn the highest points, if the system is designed properly, then “gaming” the system will actually reinforce the same qualities, achievements, and proficiencies necessary for the force to win on the battlefield. Participants in every system will always attempt to “game” it somehow. The challenge is making the game as close as possible to rewarding the same performances that would result organizational success which, in the Army’s case, is victory in battle. OER box checks could carry greater scores than awards, schools, and so forth. Simply receiving an independent evaluation of some sort could earn a small number of points. Regardless of how the point scale is determined, the resulting process would be more objective and transparent than under present practices.

3.  Headquarters, Department of the Army (HQDA) must develop a new rule to prevent appraisal deflation within the box check feature.[29] At present, rating officials may not give “top blocks” in more than 50% of their ratings. However, raters should also be prevented from giving “top blocks” to less than 40% of their rated officers. This would prevent rating officials from being too selective among their pool of rated officers, preventing them from imposing an unreasonable performance standard and, instead, force them to choose the best among their available population at the moment of rating. For example, an HQDA control mechanism should prod rating officials to give “top blocks” to at least 2 out of every 5 but no more than 3 out of every 6 officers. In turn, this would encourage rating officials to choose their best performers with brightest potential at hand while lessening pressures on rated officers to imitate their supervisor’s views, demeanor, and style. All parties involved would know that someone must receive a “top block.”

4. Add a “Change of Senior Rater” OER requirement. The departure and arrival of senior raters has always been a gap in the evaluation system. Officers can serve 11 months beneath a senior rater who is not required to evaluate him, but then serve 2 months under a senior rater who is. An officer who senior rates other officers at least 90 days should require an evaluation of the subordinate. Although the Army has taken a step in the right direction by adding a forced box check for first-line supervisors, a Change of Senior Rater OER need not require a rater box-check since the rater must provide a rating at another point. Likewise, a Change of Rater OER need not compel the senior rater to render a box check. This is an added benefit of separating box checks under the new OER. This new requirement would reduce misuse of mid-stream rating scheme changes, and upset practices of manipulating OER timing, sequence, and submission.

5.  Competition for promotion should only occur within each officer’s branch. Officers from one branch should not compete for promotion with officers from other branches. This would lessen apples-to-oranges comparisons. Branch-specific personnel manning requirements should determine the number of positions available for officers to be promoted. While the more elite branches could maintain selective criteria to admit new officers, the level of promotion competition within a branch would vary based on the technical skills needed and the rank pyramid necessary to meet Army requirements.

6. As Yingling suggested, the Army should encourage officers to pursue civilian post-graduate degrees in social sciences and liberal arts, as well as to obtain at least a beginner’s level proficiency in a foreign language.[30] Studies in social sciences and liberal arts help an officer better understand human nature and behavior. This is a vital quality for Army officers.[31] Despite potentially increased costs, additional civilian education would yield a net positive benefit by narrowing the civil-military gap with enhanced senior officer and civilian leader interaction. Many political appointees possess advanced degrees, and an Army officer corps with similar degrees would increase civilian and military leader’s understanding of one another. Sending officers to civilian graduate schools would also increase an officer’s familiarity with the society they defend, rather than solely inculcating them Army culture at bases isolated from the general population. To offset the added costs incurred with these new education requirements, fewer officers should be promoted to senior ranks, and the Army should narrow the top of its promotion pyramid. Studying foreign languages would increase an officer’s effectiveness to act as an instrument of foreign policy, as well.[32] Foreign language study would build cultural understanding and improve the officer corps’ ability to interact with allies, partners, neutral parties, and also potential adversaries. The Army should revamp its professional military education around these ideas.

The Army presently requires officers to complete command and general staff college (CGSC) at their mid-career point, senior service college (SSC) near promotion to colonel, and qualified but non-selected officers may attend these schools as non-residents. Instead, officers should compete, apply, and attend civilian master’s degree programs in lieu of resident CGSC, doctoral-producing programs in lieu of resident SSC after promotion to colonel, and qualified officers should attend the resident CGSC and SSC programs. The Army should eliminate the practice of offering these courses to non-residents. Non-resident courses overload officers with studies that distract them from their assigned duty, and dilute their performance in both. Lastly, at some point in their careers an officer should earn a 1/1 score on a Defense Language Proficiency Test in order to become eligible for promotion to brigadier general.

These new requirements would add an additional independent assessment of an officer’s intellectual and academic capacity, and increase the legitimacy of academic scholarship for field grade and general officer ranks. In the end, imagine a general officer corps replete with tactically experienced leaders educated to the Ph.D.-level with an improved ability to relate to foreign cultures. Is this not what the profession should aspire to achieve?

7. Enforce OER support form requirements. Command inspections should include checking the periodic counseling required by Army regulations. This will improve the evaluation system by ensuring it works as it should.

8. Eliminate the JODSF. This document serves little value, and keeping the requirement will only frustrate all involved.

Although some critics of the present system propose 360-degree surveys as an additional input to evaluations, this would invite a new set of problems which could prevent the Army from promoting its most capable officers. Among many flaws, peer evaluations encourage weaker performers to build alliances against stronger and more competent ones, much like the television reality game show “Survivor.” In the show, strong performers are often weeded out early by weaker competitors seeking to pursue selfish interests to advance themselves. Similarly, it is possible to knock off competitors through political means while conducting peer evaluations. Supervisor evaluations from subordinates also encourage leaders to be popular at the expense of being effective. Although 360-degree evaluations may indeed by a useful tool to improve individual self-awareness, the hazard in making inputs a formal part of an officer’s evaluation exceed its value to the system.

When considered in sum, these eight reforms would increase emphasis on externally-evaluated tactical performance, reward roles that contribute to success on the battlefield more than “horse-holder” ones, reduce factors that contribute to group-think, sycophancy, and ingratiation, increase objectivity and transparency in officer promotion processes, and improve the overall quality, depth, and breadth of each individual officer, as well as the officer corps as a whole.


The Army has excessively relied on OERs and their senior rater box check to promote its officers. Since the subjective judgment of an officer’s chain of command has been supremely powerful in an officer’s progression, this system led to an overly ingratiating culture that has given greater incentive to winning a boss’ favor rather than achieving concrete feats. Although once touted in the private sector, commercial experts now eschew these promotion systems. The Army must institute an evaluation system that offers promotion boards more information on each candidate’s performance and potential that is independent from the chain of command if the Army is to recapture the confidence it has lost. This revised system should lessen the officer’s need to ingratiate, increase objectivity in ratings, and reward performers rather than favorites. The Army should also revamp its officer professional development to more broadly educate its corps rather than sentencing its officers to career-long endeavors of currying their boss’ favor. Lastly, the Army should either enforce its OER policies or abandon them. Continuing to stand by unenforced rules will undermine the system. With these reforms, the Army will regain the confidence it has lost, and constructively enhance the nation’s defense.

End Notes

[1] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and The State (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1985), 297.

[2] Tim Kane, Bleeding Talent (New York, N.Y.:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 227.

[3] Ibid, 225-229.

[4] Douglas A. Macgregor, Breaking the Phalanx (Washington, D.C.:  Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1997), 177-180. 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gerald R. Ferris and Thomas R. King, “Politics in Human Resources Decisions:  A Walk on the Dark Side,” Human Resources Management:  Perspectives, Context, Functions and Outcomes (3rd Ed., Prentice Hall, 1995), Edited by Gerald R. Ferris and M. Ronald Buckley, 45-46.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Bernard Weiner and Andy Kukla, “An Attributional Analysis of Achievement Motivation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 15, May 1970), 3. 

[10] Attributed to H.R. McMaster in Andrew Erdmann, “How militaries learn and adapt:  An interview with Major General H.R. McMaster,” McKinsey & Company, April 2013, available online at, accessed on December 4, 2014.

[11] Gerald R. Ferris, M. Ronald Buckley, and Gillian M. Allen, “Promotion Systems in Organizations,” Human Resources Management:  Perspectives, Context, Functions and Outcomes, 194; Maureen Mylander, The Generals: Making It, Military Style, (New York, N.Y.: The Dial Press, 1974), 67.

[12] Mylander, The Generals, 211.

[13] Ibid, 323.

[14] For a similar critique of the Army following the Vietnam War, see Cincinnatus, Self-Destruction The Disintegration of the United States Army in the Vietnam Era, (New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981), 62.

[15] For a similar critique of the Army following the Vietnam War, see Cincinnatus, Self-Destruction, 137.

[16] Major General G.S. Eckhardt et al., “Study on Military Professionalism,” (Carlisle Barracks, PA.: U.S. Army War College, 30 June 1970), 15-16.

[17] James O’Toole and Warren Bennis, “What’s Needed Next:  A Culture of Candor,” (Harvard Business Review, June 2009).

[18] Mylander, The Generals, 211.

[19] For a note on OER deflation, see Cincinnatus, Self-Destruction, 188.

[20] For a similar critique of the Army following the Vietnam War, see Eckhardt, “Study on Military Professionalism,” 13, and Mylander, The Generals, 301.

[21] Headquarters, Department of the Army Pamphlet 623-3, “Evaluation Reporting System,” (Washington, D.C.:  05 June 2012), 2.

[22] William S. Lind, “An Officer Corps That Can’t Score,” The American Conservative, April 17, 2014, available online at, accessed on April 15, 2015.

[23] Ibid.

[24] See Ward Just, Military Men, (New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 120-121.

[25] Mylander, The Generals, 318.

[26] Ibid, 323.

[27] Josh Berson, “Time to Scrap Performance Appraisals?”, available online at, accessed on November 21, 2014;  for more information on the futility of performance appraisals, see Clinton O. Longenecker, Henry P. Sims, Jr., and Dennis A. Gioia, “Behind the Mask:  The Politics of Employee Appraisal,” Human Resources Management:  Perspectives, Context, Functions and Outcomes,  250, and Jack M. Feldman, “Beyond Attribution Theory:  Cognitive Processes in Performance Appraisal,” Journal of Applied Psychology (1981, Vol. 6, No. 2), 127-148.

[28] Macgregor, Breaking the Phalanx, 177-180.

[29] Cincinnatus, Self-Destruction, 188.

[30] Paul Yingling, “Failure in Generalship,” Armed Forces Journal (2007), available online at, accessed on November 26, 2014.

[31] Huntington, The Soldier and The State, 198-200.

[32] Cincinnatus, Self-Destruction, 39.


About the Author(s)

David Tier is a Major in the U.S. Army and serves as a strategic plans and policy officer. He is an Airborne Ranger-qualified graduate of Harvard, a three-time combat veteran of Iraq and commanded a cavalry troop in combat for 12 months, but was passed over for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel in the primary zone. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or any of their components.



Thu, 08/26/2021 - 11:48pm

Not sure why, but I just finished reading this flaming piece of garbage.  It fails to incorporate the ahole factor which Dave maxed.  I worked with him and no surprise he was passed over, saved a lot of soldiers a lot of heartaches.  

I tend to slightly disagree on the point you made in de-emphasizing academic pursuits in the field of social sciences. The fact is that Warfighting is purely a human endeavor. As a leader and signal officer I can argue the importance of email encryption for instance and I can argue that it takes place in the presentation layer of the Open System Interconnections (OSI) model. I can say satellites reside in the geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above. Great! Will this technical knowledge win future wars? Or rather will my ability to lead and influence actions of personnel in charge of the equipment responsible for hardening information systems help win a war on the modern battlefield? We manage 4 primary resources: personnel, time, equipment, and budget. The most important of these is personnel who simultaneously fight in all 5 domains across 6 Warfighting functions. Leading people and cross culturally communicating to influence actions is rooted in social sciences and humanities. 

The reason many college students pursue college degrees rooted in strict sciences is because the society adds more prestige and monetary compensation as a reward upon employment. The same reason applies why majority of students pursue business degrees, i.e. to make money for themselves. One must agree that these are purely selfish motives. Of course a rule wouldn’t be a rule without an exception, but profession of arms is actually rooted in selfless service rather than in efforts to gain a sense of personal sense of prestige in society’s eyes.

Alexander the Great wasn’t that great in math, business, and engineering but he sure knew how to influence subordinates and make alliances across cultures that resulted in being recognized as one of the greatest conquerors of all time. 

When it comes to increasing officers intellectual and academic capacity I am not sure focusing on advanced degrees in social science and liberal arts is the way to go.   These degree fields are not the most challenging and those are the degrees that get you the check for college education, but not the most academically rigorous 4 years you could spend in a degree program.   If we are going to be honest and pointed about the problems with the officer corps and promotions, we also have to be honest the about the true academic rigor (or lack there of) of many majors. 

Starting early on the standard should be set that we want our officers to challenge themselves academically as in all areas of their profession.   We don't do that as a basic commissioning criteria so from that point on it is hard to catch up.  Yes, with a social science degree you can gain insight into human nature and behavior, but you can also do that by living life and self study. 

If you truly want to make a statement toward intellectual development I think you have to say, hey we are going to send you for and advanced degree, but it is going to be in a field that makes you bust your ass and study.  If you send them of to two years of less rigorous pontificating about the world then you just created another check the block towards advancement.  In fact I think that is already what is in place.  Statistics would show most career officers get masters degrees of one sort or another and when you read the bios of most senior officers they have all been to this or that graduate school.  But it apparently has not created the end result you are seeking.  I think that is because it is not just going to school that rises you academic prowess, but what you went for and how rigorous the program and how hard you had to work.


The author is completely on point regarding the inability of the Army Officer Personnel System to readily identify and singularly promote outstanding leaders. A consequence of professionalizing and centralizing promotions in the 1950s was eradicating the pejorative effects of the "good-ole boy network," at the cost of promoting near-universal traits. Tom Ricks called this the rise of the "Corporate General." The officer system today is a some extremes completely decentralized, OERS are written in the field and the author correctly notes that the power of raters and senior raters is unchecked, which leads to fear of standing up to your boss. On the flip-side, central boards rarely, if ever, know the officer and, therefore, fall back on on company-line policy during selection.
Those points are delivered brutally by the author, but his recommendations would only marginally improve a broken system. You cannot fix the OER with small tweaks like those recently put into place without a complete overhaul of the Army Officer Culture. Yes, we adopted 360-degree reviews, once every 3 years with no actual consequences. Yes, the box check is more fair now, so what? The author suggests all Generals should score a 1/1 on the DLPT in a language. Guess how our current culture will address that? With a lot of Spanish classes at night, failing to actually meet the goal of that policy.
The root cause of this systemic malaise comes from rapid personnel turnover, box checking certain jobs, and a failure to truly match performance, not effort, with reward. Stop insisting that every officer follow a certain path, accept lateral entry, and reward mavericks. If officers start seeing mavericks like McMasters and Ostlund rewarded and not punished, that along with changing our career paths, will actually change the culture that has created all the faults the author correctly mentioned.

Biggs Darklighter

Mon, 08/31/2015 - 11:46pm

Excellent article. One can only hope Army decision makers have read this article. Unfortunately, too many of those decision makers probably got to their high rank by being the "bureaucratically savvy officers apt at pleasing their superiors at the expense of officers that increased their organization’s combat effectiveness" the author refers to. If you have ever known any particular senior level officers who had significant shortcomings and you wondered how they got to that rank, now you know.


Mon, 08/31/2015 - 11:24am

Moving from a more subjective to objective evaluation is a great idea; the secret, however, is what to measure.

Rather than looking towards the future, I think that MAJ Tier's reforms look backward and reinforce the worst aspects of our overly tactically focused Army. I remember all to well as a young officer at Ft. Hood in the late 80's when LT OERs (and blocks) were based on Tables VIII, XII, ARTEPs and the like, and CPT's careers were decided by NTC performance and the whims of the OPFOR and O/C's. One can perform to standard and still lose, or be a soup sandwich and win. Snapshot evaluation, is probably not a great arbiter of future potential. What is important is what someone can learn, and how they can incorporate those lessons into their continued service.

As a whole, the reforms above are very BN/BDE focused. That's not where the Army's problems have been. We are very tactically proficient, its in the operational/strategic box where we have had problem the last 20 years. I don't believe the suggested OER cure will help to much with this problem.

Promotion against your branch/CF counterparts is a great idea. It actually is what happens now. While files are scored together, they are ranked against your branch/career field vacancy for promotion, so you are competing within your gene pool.

Giving individuals in certain units an advantage on the board, will have unintended consequences well beyond the promotion board, and will likely have long term negative impacts for the organization. We currently repeatedly send "our best officers" to the most well resourced units, and then wonder why they can't adjust to times of scarcity.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 08/31/2015 - 4:26am

Ah......"the smell of napalm in the morning".

This article is so to the point it hurts.

As a former DAC tasked with training Mission Command as envisioned by the former JCoS in his article on MC---the most serious problem being encountered was the actual Army command culture.

BTW the MC as envisioned by the former JCoS is dead as a nail as Ft. Leavenworth uses the term MC and has countless MC teams THAT do not teach true MC--meaning commander and staff working in a true fear free dialogue environment built on trust.

I once in 2013 encountered a BN Commander who honestly told his Staff officers that they must be feared and he must see them being feared by other Officers and NCOs.

THAT Commander went on to command a BCT in 2013.

Someone told me that one does not feed a bear marshmallows with your lips and if you push the bear to hard in the stomach he will kill you--meaning your career.

Nothing has truly changed since the last major Officer RIF since the 1993 Desert Storm peace dividend drawn down.

We learned then as we will learn now in the coming years--those not touched and left in place reach the level of nothing more than mediocrity.

That does not bode well in the coming wars of the 21st century driving on the non linear warfare strategy that mediocrity cannot answer.

The current officer promotion system does just that--it promotes nothing but mediocrity.