U.S. generals face review by their own subordinates

Thom Shanker / New York Times News Service /

Published Apr 14, 2013 at 05:00AM

After a series of scandals involving high-ranking officers, the U.S. military for the first time will require generals and admirals to be evaluated by their peers and the people they command on qualities including personal character.

The new effort is being led by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as part of a broad overhaul of training and development programs for generals and admirals. It will include new courses to train the security detail, executive staffs and even the spouses of senior officers.

Saying that he was “disturbed about the misconduct issues,” Dempsey said that evaluations of top officers needed to go beyond the traditional assessment of professional performance by superior officers alone. He said he had decided the changes were necessary “to assess both competence and character in a richer way.

“You can have someone who is intensely competent, who is steeped in the skills of the profession, but doesn’t live a life of character, and that doesn’t do me any good,” he said.

A significant number of military personnel — including Gen. William Ward, once the top officer in Africa, and David Petraeus, the four-star general turned CIA director — have been investigated, penalized and fired in recent months for poor judgment, financial malfeasance and sexual improprieties or sexual violence. Others were relieved for inappropriate leadership judgment while in command.

Dempsey said that regularly scheduled professional reviews would be transformed from top-down assessments to the kind of “360-degree performance evaluation” often seen in corporate settings. He acknowledged that the change had already drawn concern from some in the military’s senior ranks, who warned that it risked damaging a hierarchical command system based on discipline and adherence to orders from above.

Richard Kohn, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who specializes in military culture, said he thought the 360-degree evaluation would have a positive effect on the leadership styles of many officers. “It will reduce what the military calls ‘toxic leadership,’ elevating those who are highly competent but also fair and less brusque and peremptory.”

As for the new training programs, Kohn said that while it may be impossible to prevent willful infractions, “most officers need to be reminded of the rules and regulations on a routine basis.”

Dempsey said the demands of combat deployments in the past decade had prevented officers from attending the academic programs that historically had been integrated into an officer’s career every few years, and he pledged to rebalance that.

It is likely the review will lead to a reduction in the overall number of generals and admirals, and the size of personal staffs, communications teams and security details. The review also looked at whether administrative staff members assigned to commanders had been used to run personal errands for officers and their spouses.

Under Dempsey’s plan, teams of inspectors will observe and review the procedures of commanders and their staff. The inspections will not be punitive but will provide a “periodic opportunity for general officers and flag officers to understand whether, from an institutional perspective, we think they are inside or outside the white lines,” he said. In addition, new programs will be instituted to ensure that a commander’s staff, and a spouse, are fully aware of military regulations.

The list of subordinates asked to assess a senior leader would be drawn from those who had direct interaction with the commander.

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