O-5 and the Peter Principle

Frequent commenter Tatyana and I have a friendly disagreement. She thinks Putin’s a putz. I don’t. Basically, Putin was a mid-level manager of spies in the KGB. A light colonel. An O-5. I do not find that much of a condemnation, although one could argue that someone who could not rise in their own hierarchy is incompetent.

I do not argue that because I was an AASERT fellow in grad school (never mind which branch, I worked on ARL, ONR and AFOSR grants), and I got to observe military bureaucracy at pretty close hand. It is my studied opinion that roughly half of the O-6 level is worthless, and most of the echelons above reality that rank are political animals more bent on their own aggrandizement than in the welfare of their organization or people, and that few of them are in the top echelons of technical or organizational competence. As Very Retired pointed out in Zenpundit’s thread, what else is new in big organizations, military or not? Well, nothing. The Peter Principle is a very real phenomenon.

From my admittedly limited observations of the military, and from my much wider observations in Academia and Industry, I have a theory of organizational and technical competence. Technical competence peaks out in the 25 – 35 year old range. It’s the old saw in Physics that you have to make your contribution by 30, in other disciplines, you can probably stretch that to 35. But there is an optimum age where the brain is still capable of looking at things from a fresh angle while having enough experience and training to be able to advance beyond what has already been done. I would say that I peaked technically at about 28. Organization competence takes a bit more time and experience to develop, and requires less mathematical plasticity of the brain. It also requires wisdom on top of intelligence, which takes time to acquire. I would say that the peak years there are in the 40 – 50 range.

Unfortunately the 40 – 45 age range is exactly the time at which the military either bounces an O-5 into retirement or kicks them upstairs to the War College. Just when an officer has the skills and network to make a change, the upper ranks of the military either mold that officer in their image or kick him or her out. With predictable results. Why is it that so many of the military thinkers we talk about (Harry Summers, Ralph Peters, David Hackworth, John Boyd ) hold the rank of O-5 or O-6 when they wrote their most influential works (my copy of On Strategy from 1986 lists H.G. Summers as a Lt. Col., although later editions list him as an O-6) – and most of these types of thinkers finish their careers at the O-6 level?

For an answer and a good look at how this process, works, please see this post by a former Marine. If anyone has a URL to the Marine Corps Gazette article that it references, I’d appreciate the link.

Except in the very early phases of most organizations, the top ranks are a layer of ossified thinkers. People who move up either suffer from that disease or act as if they do in order to blend in, with the same organizational results in either case. If I were to be brought in to an ailing organization to revamp it (not something I’m ever likely to do, BTW), I’d remove everyone from the O-6 level on up pending a thorough interview process with their subordinates. If an organization is to be changed, the best people to change it are at the O-5 level. Given the pyramidal nature of organizations, many competent people never advance beyond that level, and removing deadwood should provide opportunity for politically blocked talent. Not that the organizational experience at the higher levels isn’t vital (for example experience in the logistics of moving a Division-sized unit around the battlefield) – but that experience can be learned – mental agility can not. Hence, I do not think that Putin’s last rank is a strike against him, in fact, were it not for the fact that that rank was achieved in the KGB, I’d say it was a point in his favor.

So why do we tend to condemn careerism and its embodiment in the Peter Principle more in the military than in other organizations? Well, partially, it’s a mark of respect – we expect more out of those called to serve than out of business leaders, and we are disappointed when they turn out to be just as mortal as the rest of us. In addition, the stakes are higher in the military – lives, both civilian and military are at stake, so officers should be held to a higher standard than civilians – indeed they are by the UCMJ.

Careerism is nothing new in our military. Here is another great post from my favorite former Marines about a story I knew nothing about in the annals of the USMC. (See the comments by former Marines and Marine reservists to get the whole story). I’ll end with a few of quotes from Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 by Barbara Tuchman that construct the narrative of Gen. George Stilwell’s rise to O-7, and allow for the hope that good people will still make it through the system and rise to the top:

Benning was the basic tactical school of the Army. Under the old system the officer was trained to solve a book situation on the basis of information about the enemy far more complete than would have been available to him on the real battlefield. At exercises of the 15th Infantry in China Marshall had watched an officer become paralyzed because he could not draft a written order for 70 men on the basis of the inadequate data on the terrain given to him. When he learned that this officer had stood first at Benning, he formed “an intense desire to get my hands on Benning.” Once in charge, he threw out the book in favor of realistic exercises that would train for initiative and judgment rather than for correct solution.

p. 123

over the heads of 34 senior officers George Marshall was appointed Acting Chief of Staff, to succeed the full position on September 1. With conflict approaching, Marshall’s urgent concern was to replace the Army’s dead wood with men of action and initiative. One of the first two names he sent up for promotion to Brigadier General was Stilwell’s.

Common to many of the letters [of congratulation] was a pleased surprise that an officer of pronounced “independence of thought” and “energy of execution” as a major of the Infantry expressed it, had made it against the odds.


Finally, Stilwell’s own thoughts on the composition of the Army general staff are revealed in his letter offering on Captain Frank Dorn a position as his aide:

‘I know what you think of aides’ he said to Dorn, ‘and I know what you think of generals. I’ve got a proposition for you. I’ll be a new kind of general, and you can be a new kind of aide.’

p. 204

That being said, it took the threat of a World War to move the Army to promote George Marshall. I’m not convinced that the military currently views our existential threats seriously enough to reform itself to the required degree.

Related Posts:
Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part II.)
Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part I.)

8 thoughts on “O-5 and the Peter Principle”

  1. The word from AT&T during the breakup of the Bell System (1982-1984)was “We don’t think you have the skill set we are looking for in the new AT&T”. Of course, said by older managers who got their Bell Shaped heads in the old AT&T to the younger managers who might have made a difference.

    And we all know how that exercise turned out.



  2. I think I read that all the common held “Worst Managers of 1990s in Corporate America” were all managers at AT&T at one time.

  3. One of the interwar renowned military theorists on armored warfare, J.F.C. Fuller, published a nice little pamphlet titled “Generalship, Its Diseases and Their Cures, A Study of The Personal Factor in Command”. First printing in the US by the Military Service Publishing Co of Harrisburg PA in March 1936. I always enjoyed that title.

    O5, at least in the Army, is a often the rank of battalion commander. The battalion is a significant maneuver element within the combat organizational structure and the first element to have combined arms integration for command and control purposes. To use the common vernacular, where the rubber meets the road. It is also the worker level for Division staff. The General Staff elements, G-1 through G-5, are usually O6 billets for the head of the staff section, but that usually ends up managing and coordinating with those in the grade below doing the execution of work. Back in the 80s and early 80s, the Army officer evaluation reporting system had the senior rater as the Division commander for the battalion commanders and senior members of his general staff. Those annual [and change of command] reports could make or break a career, if your career goals were further advancement up the chain of command. It would influence personnel management actions such as selections for War College and joint assignments, multi-service or multi-national, where because of the Goldwaters-Nichols Act were required for senior command positions.

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