Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Competence over character?

As the DoD works through a recent scandal involving a general that used to be in charge of nuclear weapons, I found an interesting quote from the CJCS:

“When you’re at war, you tend to value competence most. But in our profession, character has to count,” said Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “You have to find that balance of competence and character. If you’re the most competent guy that has ever put a uniform on, but you don’t have character, I don’t really want you in my military.”

(Full story is here: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Military/2013/1220/Might-Pentagon-have-been-alerted-sooner-to-boozy-US-general-in-Moscow-video)



Although this quote seems innocent enough on the outside, the reality is that I see the military, especially the Army, moving towards a model where the only thing that counts is character, and competence takes a back seat to looking good.  And I'm not the only one seeing this:

http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/02/12/where_is_the_garrison_army_going_i_worry_it_is_heading_back_to_spit_and_polish_whil#sthash.KCD2p5ek.dpbs

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/11/08/some-bemoan-courtesy-patrol-corrections-on-military-bases/3474683/

The basic problems in all of this is the assumption that competence and character are incompatible, and that character can be measured by following the rules.

Competence means being able to do your job well.  If you're an infantry soldier, this means being able to clear a room, drive a HMMWV, patrol an area, etc.  If you're a Sailor, say a machinist mate, it means being able to tear apart a diesel engine and put it back together again.  As an officer, it means being able to lead a group of Sailors in whatever tasks you are assigned.

Competence by its very nature is a dirty business.  Killing insurgents, planning Tomahawk missions, working through the mountain of admin for a command...getting the work done is almost never pretty.  I remember the days of 100+ tags as a Ships Duty Officer.  My desk looked like trash, I had papers everywhere, and I was chugging coffee to help me stay focused.  Even non-military professionals are dirty.  Have you ever seen an operating table, or a construction job site?  It's not pretty.  Operating tables are covered in blood, construction sites are messy and oily, but we all know that it must be this way for these professionals to get their job done properly. 

Defining character is much harder than competence.  It has to do with squishy ideas like integrity, honesty, and morals.  But whose morals?  For example, the military abolished DADT and now homosexuals may serve openly, but many people view homosexuality as a sin.  Women didn't used to have a place in the military, but now they make up almost 25% of it.  Marijuana used to be legal in the US, and despite more than a few attempts at legalization, it remains illegal despite being less addictive than tobacco.  At one time flogging and corporal punishment was acceptable...now they are not.

If the DoD's version of what is moral can change, then we're shooting at a moving target if we attempt to value character over competence.  Competence can be measured.  You can have all the best intentions in the world, but if the turbine generator doesn't run after you did maintenance on it, you did something wrong.  Character, by its very nature, can't be objectively measured if you are always changing the measuring stick.

Even worse, saying that somehow the measuring stick is better today than before is ludicrous.  That would assume that every decision we make is the correct one and makes us better, when we all know full well that people make mistakes.  Is the way we dress, speak and act today better or worse than before?  When we banned alcohol, then brought it back, which was the mistake: the initial ban, or the repeal?

Even just trying to find common ground is a fool's game.  What I consider moral does not match with probably a majority of people in the US, but does that make me wrong?  If we go by majority rules, then was slavery OK when a majority of the world at one time accepted the practice? 


In an organization like the DoD, character is interpreted as following the rules as set down by the organization.  But the very fact that the rules can change mean that DoD can't really call its character, at least not in the sense that character is supposed to be some sort of internal integrity. 

Valuing character over competence is a fool's game.  The best we can hope is for our military to follow the rules, whether someone is watching or not AND be good at their job.  We can measure whether someone follows the rules, and we can measure how good they are at their job, and most importantly we can hold them accountable on both accounts.  If we begin to measure how often someone's spouse wears revealing tops at the NEX, then don't try to fool anyone and say that we're measuring character...we're not, we're simply creating and enforcing rules, whether they may make sense or not.  Clean boots and pressed uniforms may show off the pride someone has in their military profession, or equally as likely it's the simply fact that not following the rules is more painful than following them.

1 comment:

  1. I really like this post and will admit that it angers me. But that may be part of your calculus. It bothers me that our collective actions strengthen your argument. We talk of "Honor, Courage, Commitment" on a daily basis. We highlight examples of how Sailors are living up to those values and, come Captain's Mast, we make it clear when they are falling short. I value character more than competence for the mere fact that there are more competent people in waiting. The two measures that you highlight are in fact measurable and the accountability piece is paramount. I think we need to introduce HOW results are delivered and HOW leaders go about leading into the conversation. 360 degree input into the appraisal system is necessary. Outside of glaring ethical violations, it is difficult to assess character. People cheating on their spouses, verbally assaulting their juniors, disguising mistakes to seniors, and undercutting peers ought to be afforded the opportunity to reach their terminal rank at the earliest opportunity. They are all too often given a pass in our current climate (some exposed when they exhibit the same flaws in a more visible position). FITREPs inform promotion, leadership assignments, and special program selection, and reporting seniors control that process. They write the words in the narrative and they assign numbers to the traits. If I am truly leading my team, I know them well enough to assess their character (informed in part by 360 degree input) and have a responsibility to make that assessment part of the performance appraisal. I hope we all are assessing more than competence when it comes to leading our teams and influencing the career trajectory of the individuals who comprise them.

    Keep writing and inspiring critical debate. Great work!!

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