A while ago, I noted that the coming “higher education bubble” could have detrimental consequences to the quality and cost-effectiveness of officer accessions programs, primarily ROTC. In short, this is due to continually rising costs of higher education (relative to incomes and inflation) coupled with a declining amount of actual learning and development that goes on at colleges around the country.
I noted that DoD will need to truly come to grips with what kind of people we need to join our officer corps, and how to find those people–I believe that the days of a college diploma being a simple proxy for those characteristics are waning, if not gone. I’m going to take some stabs in the dark based on my experience:
- Strong moral character. The heart of the military’s existence is the ability to apply force, or threat of force, to accomplish the political (and economic) aims of the United States. Military officers command units that wield the power to kill and destroy. This is a powerful responsibility with no small potential for abuse. Accordingly, we need officers that are implicitly trustworthy. They must be honest, do the right thing all the time, able to reason through the ethics of difficult and ambiguous situations, and make sound moral decisions.
- Physically fit / athletic. Physical fitness is on the decline in the US–on average. Thankfully, fitness is far more quantifiable than other characteristics on this list, and all the services already try to measure it (though with varying degrees of success).
- Courage: physical, emotional, moral. Military service is going to place young men and women into positions where they will be scared, nervous, uncomfortable. They cannot crumble under this fear. Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyways.
- Grit. Grit is somewhat related to courage, but before I saw this TED talk, I would have called it persistence or stick-to-it-ivness.
- Ability to communicate effectively. Military operations are by definition collaborative affairs (there is no such thing as An Army of One). Officers need to be able to understand those around them, and similarly be understood. This applies in both written and oral forms, and increasingly, electronic forms as well. They must have a sense for whom to communicate with and when, and also know when to shut up. Finally, officers ought to be able to learn a foreign language (though I know this is a losing battle.)
- Ability to solve problems in general. Officers need to be able to handle structured, poorly structured, and unstructured problems, analyzing them to understand root causes and likely solutions. They need to be prepared to do this in the urgent short term (i.e. during a raging battle) or over the long term (i.e. planning training over a 6- to 12-month horizon)
- Interpersonal awareness. I don’t know the exact right word for this, but it is similar to communication. This is an ability to understand the motivations and moods of others, and to predict the impact of their own actions and behavior on those around them. Indeed, officers need the ability to design and select their own behaviors to elicit the desired responses in others.
- Humility. Or confidence without arrogance. Nobody wants to follow Narcissus. The arrogant may be successful over the short term, but will always degrade the force over the long term.
- Intellectual curiosity. This is hand-in-glove with humility; it is both the understanding that they won’t ever know everything and the motivation to continually try to learn more. It is a willingness to experiment and fail in order to find better ways of doing things.
- Technical competence. In fields where the officer needs to enter in a specific technical role–engineer, computer network administration, lawyers, doctors, etc.–they have to be good at their jobs. This does not apply to combat (infantry, armor, etc.) roles where the military will teach them all they need to know.
- Conscientiousness. In short, prospective officers need to give a crap.
Notice that I didn’t say leadership. The concept of leadership as a whole is complex and poorly understood, and I think these qualities, generally speaking, add up to an individual who we want defending our nation.
This list begets a whole host of questions:
- Which characteristics can be developed? Which ones must be selected at accessions?
- How do you measure these things? What things do a college degree represent?
- Where are the untapped pools of people who are already like this? Can you find these qualities outside of college degree holders–among entrepreneurs, civic organizations, sports/athletic organizations, firefighters, etc.?
- Since this list represents an ideal–kind of a Superman (or Captain America!) if you will–which characteristics can you accept weakness in? How much can excellence in one balance out deficiencies in others? Can you code certain people to certain positions in the military based on their overall profile?
Food for thought.