The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Grooming and Picking Generals

In his article, A Failure in Generalship, Paul Yingling argues that the American army’s process for selecting generals is flawed. He advocates taking the general officer promotion system away from the military and making it a task for Congress.  Retired MG Scales wrote an article which seemed to back up Yingling’s view.   Numerous other analysts believe that Yingling’s general point is accurate.  Defense analyst Tom Ricks has just published a book on the subject called The Generals –I suspect somewhat inspired by Yingling’s article (see the Atlantic  article related to the book –click here).

There are essentially two different military philosophies regarding the system used to pick general officers. One view is a view that comes from the French revolutionary armies of the 18th and early 19th century. That view is promotion should be based strictly on merit. In this system officers are selected from among their peers for promotion based on their demonstrated performance of duty. Ultimately, this promotion by merit system results in the most competent officers achieving the highest rank.

A second system comes from the Prussian army of the 19th Century. That view is to identify through rigorous testing a small elite cadre of the most intelligent officers in the army. These officers then are specially educated and assigned for the rest of their careers. They are specifically groomed to lead the army at the highest levels. Promotion in this system is based on intellectual ability, special education, and talent.

The promotion by merit system assumes that the best qualifications for command are demonstrated by success in command. This philosophy is traditionally the bedrock of promotion in the naval service (both in the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy) where time in command of ships and at sea are the ultimate test of fitness for command.

Which system does the U.S. army promotion system seem to follow? Is Yingling right? Is there a failure of generalship in the U.S. Army? If so, is it because of the selection philosophy the army uses, or, is it just that the execution of the process is flawed? If the selection process is flawed, how does that explain Generals like Patraeus and McCrystal? What process or philosophy do you believe produces the best senior leaders? Does the senior officer promotion system need to change?

October 18, 2013 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Reblogged this on

    Comment by Brittius | October 18, 2013

  2. While the Navy does use a merit based system for promotion and without question values time at sea as a factor in command selection and promotion, at least in Navy Surface Warfare, there are elements of the Prussian system mentioned above that impacts the upward mobility or at least career progression beyond the O4 level.

    The Navy Surface Warfare community uses a non-waiverable five step process (prerequisites, recommendation, written exam, evaluated practical and oral board) to determine eligibility for command that is based on standardized testing.

    – Prerequisites: Completed Tactical Action Officer and Engineering Officer of the Watch qualification, 60 months assigned and evaluated at sea, demonstrated shiphandling in performing a large list of evolutions assessed by an afloat commander.

    – Written Exam: Candidates take a 4 hour exam, proctored by a Commanding Officer. The exam consists of tactics; navigation, seamanship and shiphandling; maintenance and engineering; command management, legal and administrative matters. While this exam can be retaken if a section is not passed, multiple failures can not be overcome with the officer losing the ability to retake the exam and as no passing score was achieved, can not be selected for command of a surface ship.

    – Evaluated Practical Demonstration: After passing the written exam, the candidate must complete an evaluated pass/fail shiphandling simulator demonstration at SWOSCOLCOM.

    – Oral Board: A major commander (O6 or above) and at least two other afloat commanders (O5 or above) conduct an interview board with the candidate to determine thought process and leadership potential as an afloat commander.

    Following successful completion of this five step process, the officer is designated as command qualified which makes them eligible for selection for command during a Bureau of Naval Personnel selection board, consisting primarily of a records review. Even following selection there are requirements which must be met prior to assuming command (such as JPME I completion).

    Since command as an O5, aka Commander Command, is a prerequisite for major command as an O6, which in turn is a prerequisite for Flag Officer selection; the Surface Warfare Officer career path is merit based (as a measure of leadership, task accomplishment and experience) but also based on completion of rigorous standard examinations which MUST be completed in order to even be considered for command as an O5. At a minimum, this seems to be a hybrid of the merit and testing based systems for promotion and career progression.

    Comment by LCDR Matt Krull | October 20, 2013

  3. Sir,
    I would say that the US Army promotion system focuses almost exclusively on merit. I found Matt’s comments very interesting though and they only seem to reaffirm my belief that the the US Army is quite different. As far as I know, there are no standardized tests for selection of command at senior levels within the US Army.
    I do not think that LTC Yingling is correct in stating that there is a failure of generalship in the US Army. I may be biased based on our current Congress’ ability to do much of anything, but I find it alarming that anyone would argue that they would be a better source of determination on who deserves to be promoted to general officer. That would only increase a level of politics into the process that would, I fear, only slow down the overal process and have 2nd and 3rd order effects into who was most deserving of promotion vs. how many generals come from each state.
    I do not think the current selection process is necessarily flawed, I just do not think it’s perfect (nor do I believe we should expect it to be). The biggest issue I have with a promotion system that is more focused on intellectual capacity (Prussian System) is I believe we would generate a general officer corps that is completley disconnected with the Soldiers they lead. Intellectual capacity, while certainly very important, should not be the single biggest discriminator when it comes to selecting our general officers. I think the current selection process does a fairly decent job at promoting officers that deserve to be senior leaders within the US Army.
    Our current system is certainly not perfect, though. I think that the biggest problem with the current system is it focuses almost too much on military competence (merit). I think the promotion system (especially at the most senior levels) needs to be a little more balances with regards to selecting those officer that have the requisite merit, but also show an increased intellectual capacity/understanding that is befitting for filling the general officer ranks. I think some of this is actually being addressed in the Army’s updated Leader Development strategy that was just announced by GEN Odierno (


    Comment by Jeff Pickler | October 28, 2013

  4. The Center for a New American Security (which counts LTG(R) Barno, LTC(R) John Nagl and Thomas Ricks amongst its membership) has an interesting read on this very topic, entitled “Building Better Generals”:

    The authors “stress that after 12 years of irregular warfare, the combination of a volatile security environment, declining defense budgets, and newly constrained U.S. military capabilities risk producing an officer corps ill-prepared for its future challenges. Thus, the authors suggest new investments in flag officer education, assignments, and evaluations to better prepare senior military officers for the fast-moving dynamics of tomorrow’s world.”

    Comment by Ryan M. Crosby, CPT, LG, Section 17A | October 29, 2013

  5. Which system does the U.S. army promotion system seem to follow? Is Yingling right?

    The U.S. Army promotion system is merit based. However, the system is subjective. In the past, officer evaluations were particularly bland- providing general input and mediocre bullets that for the most part identify everyone as having unlimited potential for follow on assignments. In the past, everyone was a winner.

    Today, things are a little different. The Army continues to focus on merit. They are starting to implement a system that holds leaders more accountable; updating the evaluation system to ensure that raters honestly assess the current performance and the future potential of subordinates. Is this the right action? Yes, but no system is perfect and mediocre officers will continue to fall through the cracks. Lets face it. Some people are good at BS.

    I think that the Army realizes that there are mediocre performers, but they are taking the appropriate steps to fix the current system as a way to promote those that deserve promotion.

    Is there a failure of generalship in the U.S. Army?If so, is it because of the selection philosophy the army uses, or, is it just that the execution of the process is flawed?

    No, but there are some bad ones. At the end of the day, people are people. The Army philosophy of merit and focus on command is definitely the way to go, but the system is not perfect. The Army has identified this and works to fix some of these issues through the new evaluation system. The problem now is that there are probably a couple bad leaders advancing leaders like them right now.

    If the selection process is flawed, how does that explain Generals like Patraeus and McCrystal?

    The only flaw within the process is that it is not perfect. General Patraeus and McCrystal are exceptional General officers, but they had some personal issues…..

    What process or philosophy do you believe produces the best senior leaders?
    Leaders that are successful in command produce the best senior leaders because command shows that you can actually lead an organization.

    Does the senior officer promotion system need to change? Not sure. The president nominates generals. He is the commander in chief. I think he should be the guy that picks a general. Congress limits the number of generals, but maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea for congress to review the nominees prior to submittal to the president….

    Comment by Steve Keil , SG17B | October 31, 2013

  6. I believe Yingling has the right to his opinion. however, serving in the ranks as a GO at war is not an easy task. There are requirements, strengths and characteristics that our GOs must have to win our nations wars- with that comes great trial, pressure and responsibility. I also believe that we should not call it a failure if we remove a GO from the ranks because he is not qualified to fulfill the mission- the failure is placing an unqualified GO in the position with hopes that he/she may carry out a mission. Senior leaders must know the right person for the job and not knowing this could cause us to lose the wars altogether. GO’s Patraeus and McCrystal were phenomenal officers. However, they allowed their personal flaws to influence the desired end state. I’m sure this was a personal failure them.

    As far as the Army’s promotion system, I think that the goal is to build leaders for tomorrow’s Army. The steps necessary for building strong Soldiers requires our senior leaders to continue to mentor and provide their expertise, experience and education. The promotion system simply guides Soldiers through the necessary steps and rewards those who excel. Those who excel, I would say are those that go above and beyond those that don’t. Unfortunately, with the influx of toxic leaders coming to light, I would hate for Soldiers to think that you must be toxic to make GO. I believe that the Soldier must also be able to lead others as well as themselves in the ways of success. The Army has placed education and leader development as a main priority in order to build those capabilities and leadership qualities, but the Soldier must also apply himself to meet the requirements and expectations the Army needs in our Senior Leader. Tawan Harris/17B

    Comment by Tawan Harris 17B | October 31, 2013

  7. I echo Jeff’s comment’s about Congress…what do they know about picking generals? I cringe at the idea of more politics involved in the process. As for promotion based on merit or the Prussian system…I am for merit.

    I read the same article that Ryan mentioned. Three things caught my eye:

    1) “Tomorrow’s flag officers would benefit from an assignment system that tracks them into one of two specialties: warfighting (“operational”) and institutional (“enterprise”) billets.”

    2) “The current approach to the professional military education (PME) and growth of senior officers may not adequately prepare them to meet those coming challenges.” “And other than some adjustments to accommodate counterinsurgency doctrine, the PME provided by military institutions in the past decade has largely remained constant in spite of rapid changes in the world.”

    3) “Future flag officers will need three things to be adequately prepared for a series of increasingly difficult assignments. First, they will need better development opportunities. Flag officers should be categorized into separate operational and enterprise tracks, with longer assignment tenures, in order to deepen their expertise and exercise more effective leadership in their duties. Second, they will need a rigorous foundational flag-level education to prepare them to navigate the profound strategic uncertainty and complex enterprise challenges ahead. Third, they will need a selection and evaluation process that both strengthens accountability and incentivizes performance and professional growth.”

    To point #1. I am curious about how generals are selected for “operational” billets in the current system. I assumed until now that branch experience was the major discriminator. For example, I would not expect to see a chemical officer commanding CENTCOM. Likewise, I would not expect to see an infantry officer commanding TRANSCOM. If generals are not presently “tracked”, then there might be some value in it.

    To point #2. No comment.

    To point #3. Again, the authors emphasize “tracking”, strategic PME, and an improved promotion by merit system. Taken as a whole, not earth shattering, but worthy of further developing. Who’s going to do it? The OER changes on the horizon do not target general officers. The article even points out an evaluation flaw, “Today, this system abruptly stops when an officer is promoted to three-star rank.”

    From my foxhole, I support continuing PME requirements, and improvement to performance evaluations. I am confident that most of the best are rising to the top already, and that will continue.

    Comment by Troy Feltis 17A | November 5, 2013

  8. I concur w/ Jeff that the system is not flawed, nor is it perfect. If the Army attempts to make it a “perfect” system, then I believe that it will ultimately result in a “steps for success” or type of “check list” indicating that if you do “A-K”, then you can become a GO. I am not sure that we want this type of process, but possibly something that should be added to the current system (maybe this is already there, but since I am an underling, I do not get to voice an opinion) is some research into the ethical/leadership type “failures” that are rampant throughout the media today. We go through tactical vignettes to determine responses, why not walk the ethical/leadership dilemmas. Naturally, most will not admit that they would commit a violation that would tarnish their (along with the military’s) reputation, but it might open up some eyes.

    In reality, we will not know if the “System” picked the wrong GO until after some sort of offense is committed. If a GO is placed in an adverse situation, and he/she overcomes it, then they are a model leader; if the contrary, and a history of inappropriate relationships or failed decisions during a time of conflict are the result, then maybe its time for said GO to hang it up. After all, these guys are in the bonus round, already pasted the required 20 year mark. If the infraction is heinous enough then they can be “retired”, where they will draw their large pension simply for going to the mailbox; write a book, serve as a guest speaker or a “military analyst” on a news channel.

    Regardless of any changes or revisions to the current or future selection/promotion system for General Officers, there will still remain the ethical and leadership dilemmas that have echoed throughout the media. GOs will still get promoted, some will get fired, some will “step down” based on their own lack of “self confidence” or whatever catch phrase of the day.

    Comment by Matt McCarty - 17A | November 5, 2013

  9. Why does a general have to come from within?

    In the private sector senior management moves from organization to organization, sometimes with a huge success. The question should not be whether an outsider can adjust; rather, can they adjust quickly enough.

    Let’s face it, large staffs run the army. Could a professional manager/executive run the army better?

    Comment by Maj Jim Smith - SG 17 B | November 19, 2013

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