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Published Airpower Journal -
Major Michael L. Mosier, USAF
THE consensus is clear: the officer corps must come to grips with the self-serving, promotion-oriented behavior known as careerism. Military professionals view the careerist with disdain. Military historian Lt Co. John F. Shiner expresses a typical view: "These parasites could spell national ruin should many of them advance to command positions."1 Military reformists from Richard A. Gabriel to Edward N. Luttwak condemn the spread of careerism, warning, "If careerism becomes the general attitude, the very basis of leadership is destroyed."2 The senior Air Force leadership also acknowledges careerism's dangers. According to a recent statement by Maj Gen Ralph E. Havens, commander of the Air Force Military Personnel Center (AFMPC), "Many of our Air Force leaders have recently expressed concern that 'careerism' is having a disruptive effect on the development and retention of our officer force." For this reason, General Havens explained, the Air Force is mounting a major effort to make a "basic philosophical change on an individual and on an institutional level."3
Efforts to purge the officer corps of careerism are long overdue. Unfortunately, careerism is much more elusive than most care to admit--a complex problem that is hard to pinpoint and even more difficult to treat. Overly zealous, simplistic reforms could not only be ineffective but also inadvertently distill valuable attributes from the officer corps. Therefore, corrective action must he carefully considered and judiciously applied lest a short-term fix result in even greater long-term problems.
This article examines the complexities of treating careerism. To lend historical perspective, it outlines the background of careerism and explains how careerism is currently defined. Next, it discusses difficulties in pinpointing and treating careerism and presents ways to help the officer corps deal with careerism.
According to military sociologists, the genesis of today's careerism lies in a shift in basic values within the officer corps. As Samuel P. Huntington observed in his classic work The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, one of the salient characteristics that has traditionally distinguished the officer corps is its view of the military as a "'higher calling' in the service of society."4 However, Morris Janowitz noted a change in orientation as early as 1960 in his book The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait. After interviewing 113 potential military leaders, Janowitz concluded:
Those who see the military profession as a calling or a unique profession are outnumbered by a greater concentration of individuals for whom the military is just another job . . . . For a sizable majority--about 20 percent, or about out of every five--no motive [for joining the military] could be discerned, except that the military was a job.5
Janowitz is not the only military sociologist to document these findings. Charles C. Moskos, Jr., also wrote of a change in the orientation of the officer corps from institutionalism (in which the profession is viewed as a calling) toward occupationalism (just a job). The consequence, Moskos argues, is a shift from an attitude of self-sacrifice and moral commitment to one of materialism.6 Military sociologists theorize that the concept of a calling higher than self diminishes as institutional values deteriorate.
In recent years, the officer corps has also recognized this shift in basic values. In 1970 Army Chief of Staff Gen. William C. Westmoreland commissioned the Army War College to assess the ethics and values of the officer corps. In light of the trend identified by Janowitz 10 years earlier, the results of the study were both predictable and unsettling. The study cited a loss of ethical orientation to include "selfish [,] promotion-oriented behavior . . . disloyalty to subordinates [and] poor standards of ethical and professional behavior."7 This loss of orientation is not limited to the Army. According to a 1950 Air Command and Staff College report, 100 percent of officers surveyed felt "most fellow officers compromised their integrity to varying degrees."8 Most recently, an Industrial College of the Armed Forces report titled Cohesion in the US Military observed that "the shift in orientation of the officers has weakened [their] corporate cohesion. Many officers view the military as a job that offers material rewards and individual success."9 As the evidence mounted, military as well as civilian critics increasingly referred to occupationalist behavior as careerism.
There are a variety of definitions of careerism. In their book Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, Richard A. Gabriel and Paul L. Savage define careerism as "self-seeking, the use of one's charge and command largely as a means to higher career rewards."10 in another well-known reformist work titled National Defense, James Fallows describes careerism as "the desire to be, rather than the desire to do. It is the desire to have rank, rather than use it; the pursuit of promotion without a clear sense of what to do with a higher rank once one has attained it."11 Members of the officer corps define careerism in similar terms. In his article "The Military Professional in America," Lt Co. John F. Shiner defines careerism as "seek[ing] advancement for its own sake and [using] it exclusively as a go rather than as an opportunity or reward."12 An AFMPC study reached a similar conclusion in June 1987, defining careerism as "career-building as a deliberate aim; preoccupation with career advancement promotion that supplants concern for basic duty performance."13 Although other definitions exist, these are representative thoughts of both outside observers and members of the officer corps. For purposes of discussion, careerism is defined here as the practice or placing self-interests above the interests of the organization to accelerate personal advancement.
Two aspects of careerism should be highlighted. First, self-interest is central to the definition. For this reason, careerism is generally considered the antithesis of professionalism, which stresses subordination of self-interests to the interests of the organization.14 By extension, the relationship between professionalism and careerism is a zero-sum game--when careerism prospers, professionalism suffers. Second, careerism is based on motivation. An individual motivated by the lure of personal advancement places his own interests above the interests of the organization and is by definition a careerist. However, another individual who performs the same act can be called a professional if the actions are motivated by altruism. On the surface, the simplicity of the definition implies that careerism would be relatively easy to pinpoint and deal with. However, several factors complicate the process.
The most basic problem in the struggle to pinpoint careerism is that few officers view it in exactly the same way. What constitutes careerist behavior is largely a matter of perception, and perceptions are rarely if ever uniform. The following scene from the popular film Top Gun provides a good illustration:
The commander, ramrod straight, faced his newly assigned aircrews.
"Gentlemen, you are the top 1 percent of all naval aviators--the elite--the best of the best." He paused, surveying the eager faces in the crowded briefing room. "We'll make you better."
The commander began to pace the room, preaching the gospel of technical expertise and combat capability to his crews in measured tones. After a moment, Maverick casually leaned forward in his chair and turned to study the attentive faces behind him.
"What are you doing?" Goose whispered urgently.
Maverick turned back to his RIO [radar-intercept officer] with a grin. "Just wondering," he murmured in a low voice, "who's the best."
As if in reply, the commander's voice boomed out, "In case any of you wonder who the best is, they're up here on this plaque on the wall. The best driver and his RIO from each class has his name on it." He strode to the front of the room, then turned abruptly to face Maverick. He fixed the lieutenant with a cold stare, "You think your name, is going to be on that plaque?"
There was an expectant hush in the room. All eyes turned to the young F-14 pilot in the front row. Maverick met the commander's steady gaze.
Several crew members exchanged disgusted looks, rolling their eyes in disbelief.
"That's pretty arrogant, considering the company you're in." Maverick thought for a moment. "Yes, sir," he replied in a firm voice.
The commander studied him for a moment, saying nothing. Finally, he gave a curt nod of approval. "I like that in a pilot."15
The interaction between Maverick and the commander can be interpreted in two different ways. On the one hand, the crew members react to Maverick's self-assurance with disapproval. To them, his seemingly flippant remark reflects an attitude of selfishness rather than team spirit. As his call sign suggests, Maverick has a reputation as a loner, one who views the world in terms of competition and is prepared to do whatever it takes to come out on top and make himself look good, even at the expense of his fellow officers. In this respect, he epitomizes the careerist. The commander, however, has a different perspective. In his eyes, Maverick's response is simply a reflection of a good fighter pilot's relentless pursuit of individual excellence and mastery over an opponent--the essence of a warrior. Careerism has nothing to do with it. This scene illustrates how a single event can be perceived in vastly different terms, depending upon the individual's frame of reference.
In the same way, the varied perceptions of the officer corps make careerism extremely difficult to deal with because the corps lacks a common baseline by which to evaluate its own behavior. What may be blatant careerism to one may be acceptable--or even desirable--behavior to another. "That so many officers believe careerism to be a problem in military service suggests an agreement on the facts," write noted ethicists Peter L. Stromberg, Malham M. Wakin, and Daniel Callahan. However, due to varying interpretations, "one person's careerism could be another's self-realization; one person's professionalism, another's insensitive consequentialism."16 In this respect, careerism exists in the eye of the beholder.
The difficulty in assessing individual motivation also contributes to the difficulty in pinpointing careerism. According to Samuel P. Huntington, the professional is motivated by a sense of responsibility to the profession.17 The careerist, on the other hand, is motivated by the lure of personal advancement. Consequently, determining whether an action constitutes careerism depends on whether the individual is motivated by a desire to serve the organization or by personal advancement. For example, an officer who consistently takes on high-visibility additional duties in the squadron is considered a professional if he is motivated by a sincere desire to contribute to the unit's mission. However, if motivated solely by prospects of a good officer effectiveness report (OER), he is a careerist. In theory, the difference between the two individuals is clear-cut. In reality, this black-or-white approach can easily lead to incorrect assumptions about what motivates peers or subordinates.
Rather than stemming from a single motive, human behavior often results from several different, perhaps even conflicting, motives. Furthermore, behavior is much less consistent than people would like to behave, leading them frequently to make incorrect inferences about what prompts an individual's behaviors.18 To add to the confusion, sometimes the individual is not aware of his or her true motives. For these reasons, motivation is extremely difficult to assess, making careerism difficult to pinpoint reliably. The result can be a series of erroneous judgments by a commander or an individual's peers, leading to an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust, and a rapid breakdown of unit cohesion.
Careerism, then, is difficult to pinpoint due to the lack of a common perception within the officer corps and the difficulty of assessing individual motivation. However, not only is careerism difficult to pinpoint, but also several aspects of the military profession hinder an effective treatment of careerism.
By sending mixed signals to the field, the current personnel system makes careerism difficult to treat. Within the Air Force, careerism is decried as fostering an environment of selfishness that undermines the traditional military ethic of self-sacrifice. Yet, by the Air Force's own admission, many personnel policies actually reinforce a careerist orientation.19 Pilot retention provides a timely example. AFMPC recently sponsored a conference in an effort to halt the progressive decline in cumulative continuation rate (CCR). Air Staff and major air command representatives met to consider a variety of measures designed to improve pilot retention. The primary recommendation to emerge from the conference was an increase in flight pay.20 This recommendation was followed by a proposal to offer pilots an annual bonus of $12,000 to stay past their initial service obligation.21 Unfortunately, this approach to improving the CCR tends to reinforce the most pessimistic view of the officer corps as self-serving occupationalists motivated by material gain. If this view is accurate, careerist incentives are bound to spawn more careerism. If this view is not accurate, the Air Force has not set a very high level of expectation for its officer corps. Either way, materialism does not appear to be a constructive solution. Moreover, if inadequate flight pay is in fact a principal cause for declining pilot retention,22 the Air Force has a larger problem than the CCR.
The effects of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 on the personnel system have also encouraged a careerist orientation within the officer corps.23 Title IV of the act, which deals with joint officer personnel policies, requires officers promoted to general or flag rank to have served in a joint duty assignment.24 The effect, according to Gen Thomas R. Morgan, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, is to force a choice "between operational experience that will sharpen combat skills and administrative assignments that will enhance promotion potential."25 As this legislation encourages young officers to scramble for joint duty assignments, careerism becomes institutionalized to a much greater degree, resulting in a corresponding decrease in combat capability.26 Against the current backdrop of anticareerism, policies such as incentive pay and joint officer duty tend to send conflicting signals to the officer corps, further muddying the water.
Another aspect that makes careerism difficult to treat is the close relationship between careerism and self-interest.27 As previously noted, self-interest is central to the definition of careerism. Consequently, the officer corps tends to equate self-interest with careerism. In reality, they can be quite different. In an article titled "Ethics of Leadership," Col Malham M. Wakin says that self-development and selfishness are two components of self-interest:
We attribute selfishness to those who seek their own advantage without regard to the consequences of their actions for others or in spite of causing harm to others. To develop one's talents can be viewed as self-interested action, but it need not be selfish. Certainly, some self-interested actions can be morally right and justifiably encouraged . . . .28
Although selfishness is clearly careerism, self-interested action that supports organizational goals is not and can therefore be desirable. A good example is the Air Force nonresident professional military education (PME) program. In recognition of the role of PME in professional development, the Air Force considers PME an important factor in career progressions.29 If an individual enrolls in a PME program to enhance his chances for promotion, he is acting out of self-interest. However, this self-interested action is not careerism because it meets PME's objective of developing expertise in the use of air power.30 In spite of the recent decision to disregard "early" PME accomplishment at promotion boards (i.e., intermediate service school at major boards and senior service school at lieutenant colonel boards) appropriately timed PME remains an important factor for promotion.31 If all promotion boards were to disregard PME records, an important incentive for the officer to complete PME programs would be removed. Presumably, such a decision would result in an eventual reduction in the effectiveness of the officer corps.
Finally, formulating an effective approach toward careerism is complicated by the legitimate need for competitive spirit and ambition within the officer corps. Competitiveness is a basic ingredient of leadership, and the military cannot afford to be in short supply, particularly in combat. As Gen Douglas MacArthur pointed out, the mission of the profession of arms is to "win our wars. Everything else in [the officer's] professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication."32 Vice Adm William P. Lawrence adds that leadership requires "very competitive individuals [who possess] a high degree of pride, and [who] satisfy that pride in achieving productive ends. More simply stated in the context that all in the military understand, they are fighters with a strong will to win."33
Another crucial ingredient of leadership is ambition. As Lt Gen Ira C. Eaker once observed, great leaders are not shy about seizing an opportunity. "If you find need for a leader and have to coax or urge your selection to take the job," Eaker said, "you'll be well advised to pass him over. He's not the man you need."34 When taken to the extreme, however, the two virtues of competitiveness and ambition become vices of the careerist. As Richard A. Gabriel charges in his book Military Incompetence: Why the American Military Doesn't Win, "competition and careerism make every officer look out for himself. Such a system engenders values corrosive of any concept of the military as a special calling requiring special service and sacrifice."35
Competition becomes destructive when it detracts from team spirit. Excessive ambition can have a similar effect, driving the careerist to pursue personal achievement at the expense of mission effectiveness or unit welfare. Worse yet, to the extent an ambitious individual indulges in careerism, he tends to encourage careerism in others. The result can be a self-perpetuating situation wherein careerists who advance into leadership positions teach others either to follow their example or get out of the service.36
Competitiveness and ambition, then, can be valuable attributes when properly channeled or destructive influences if allowed to run rampant. To avoid the latter situation, one mistake a clear distinction between legitimate competitiveness and ambition and their destructive counterparts. Otherwise, these two important leadership qualities might be removed from the officer corps by heavy-handed reforms, an action that would hamper combat effectiveness.
The varied perceptions of careerism, the difficulty in assessing individual motivation, the mixed signals sent to the officer corps by the personnel system, the close relationship between self-interest and careerism, and the need for competition and ambition within the military make careerism difficult to pinpoint and treat. Immoderate reforms, hastily conceived and indiscriminately applied, can have opposite effects than those intended. However, the Air Force can treat careerism effectively if it is patient and takes a long-term perspective.
Three important steps can be taken to help the officer corps control the problem of careerism without generating unintended side effects. First, the officer corps must develop a common perception of careerism. Second, strong, ethical leadership is needed at all levels to control careerism. Finally, systemic changes are required to eliminate the personnel policies that foster a careerist orientation.
The Officer Corps cannot realize a basic philosophical change toward careerism without a common understanding of what careerism is, as well as what it is not. While it is unlikely that everyone will ever perceive careerism in exactly the same way, the officer corps needs a common understanding of careerism and its effects in order to formulate a basis for action. At present, careerism is like pornography: few can define it, but everyone claims to recognize it.
Understandably, the search for careerism generally begins with others, rather than with oneself. As Stromberg, Wakin, and Callahan point out, "Most talk about careerism centers . . . on the alleged careerism of other people. It is often easier to censure others for self-seeking motives than to modify similar motives in oneself."37 To facilitate self-examination, personnel at all levels--from the smallest units to the Air Staff--should discuss the causes and effects of careerism. Conferences, commander's calls, and individual counseling can be useful avenues for developing an awareness of the dangers of careerism .38
Equally important, however, is a discussion of what careerism is not. When properly channeled, self-interested action, competitiveness, and ambition are not careerism but hallmarks of winning organizations. Likewise, eagerness is not careerism, nor is striving to be the very best at one's profession. The officer corps must understand this distinction lest misdirected peer pressure discourage the individual's desire to excel.
Even with this common understanding, the officer corps will be able to control careerism only to the extent that commanders are stewards of professional ethics. In an organization that searches for role models, strong, ethical leadership must be the standard. Commanders should be selected largely on the basis of ethical character because it is their example that will teach the individual to distinguish between self-interested action and selfishness, competitiveness and antagonism, ambition and greed. An awareness of where to draw the line will give the officer corps the confidence it needs to aggressively pursue individual excellence, as well as the wisdom to stop occasionally and get its ethical bearings.39 Led by commanders who set high ethical standards for the organization, the individual will be inspired to place duty above self. Led by commanders who set expedient standards, the individual will be lured into looking out for himself. Without an example of ethical leadership, even basic philosophical changes in individuals can eventually give way to the pressures of careerism.
Finally, the personnel system must stop sending mixed signals to the field. As the earlier example of pilot retention pointed out, raising flight pay as a primary incentive to keep pilots in the Air Force is inconsistent with urging the officer corps to return to the institutional values of duty, honor, country. Furthermore, such incentives could exacerbate the problems of specialization within the officer corps, create animosity between rated and nonrated officers, and further weaken the profession's corporate identity.
Instead of occupationalist incentives, the Air Force should explore institutional incentives to encourage its pilots to remain in service. Pilots should be able to enhance their chances for promotion by remaining in the cockpit--at the tip of the spear--rather than accept career-broadening assignments forced upon them by the realities of the promotion system. Such a change would not only eliminate a major source of pilot dissatisfaction40 but also shift the measure of performance from ticket-punching to fulfilling the professional officers' principal obligation--improving combat capability. As Marine Maj Robert B. Neller so astutely put it, "If any group within the corps, or any of the Services, should be given an edge at promotion time, it should be those individuals who possess the leadership and tactical expertise in warfighting skills and can lead us to victory in war."41
The Air Force should also examine assignment policies for careerist orientation, particularly in light of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act. AFMPC should minimize the individual officer's direct involvement in the assignment process and instead rely on the commander's judgment.42 Assignments should be based more on the commander's assessment of where the individual can best serve, rather than the individual's perception of what would be the best career move. In this regard, the newly announced assignment policy of weighing officers' qualifications more heavily than their volunteer status43 is an encouraging step toward eliminating the square-filling, self-serving behavior so devastating to unit cohesion.
Finally, to nurture the attitude of "send me where I can best serve," the promotion system should encourage highly qualified officers to accept difficult assignments for the good of the service, as well as their own benefit. As Harry G. Summers notes, "You want people to be ambitious. You want people to seek out difficult jobs. What you need to bring out is that the jobs that enhance their careers are the most difficult to do . . . . What we need is a structure, a system where what's important pays."44 If the military is to build such a structure, the personnel system must stop rewarding careerism on the one hand while seeking to eliminate it on the other.
Clearly, the Air Force must act to arrest the development of careerism within the officer corps. To the extent careerism continues to spread, the fundamental ethics that stress duty over self will further deteriorate. Although military reformists, senior military leaders, and the officer corps itself agree that reform is needed, identifying careerism is not as easy as defining it. Lack of a common perception within the officer corps and the inability to ,accurately assess individual motivation make careerism difficult to pinpoint. Some personnel policies further cloud the issue by fostering a careerist orientation. Finally, the close relationship between careerism and self-interested action, competitiveness, and ambition also make quick, easy solutions unlikely. The officer corps, it seems, is stuck between a rock and a hard place--faced with a grave problem that demands immediate attention, yet unable to implement a rapid solution for fear of unforeseen consequences.
Solving the enigma of careerism must start at the source: the officer corps. Air Force officers must examine careerism in the light of day and see it as a betrayal of the ethic of duty, honor, country. At the same time they must separate legitimate forms of self-interest, as well as competitiveness and ambition, from careerism and preserve them as valuable assets. The officer corps needs strong, ethical leadership to channel these assets properly and inspire selfless dedication. Finally, systemic changes are necessary to ensure that personnel policies reinforce rather than diminish the traditional values of the profession of arms.
Regardless of the solution adopted, one fact should be borne in mind: lasting philosophical changes on the individual and institutional level will come neither quickly nor easily. There are no miracle cures for the scourge of careerism, and a heavy-handed approach can produce undesirable side effects. Lt Gen Walter F. Ulmer, a former superintendent of the US Military Academy, wryly observed that the military tends to overreact zealously to fundamental ethical dilemmas. "Most mischief and lack of motivation in our systems," General Ulmer concluded, "is caused by well-intentioned policies promulgated by a dedicated chain of command."49 As the controlled OER system of the seventies so graphically illustrates, even the best intentions can have disastrous results. This painful lesson should be kept uppermost in mind as individual and institution attempt to get a grip on the slippery issue of careerism.
Maj Michael L. Mosier (USAFA; MBA, Webster University) is a member of the faculty at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. His previous assignments include a B-52 aircraft commander at Carswell AFB, Texas; T-37 instructor pilot at Laughlin AFB, Texas; and T-37 Flight examiner and staff officer at Headquarters Air Training Command. Major Mosier also served as the assistant attaché to the Federal Republic of Germany. He is a graduate of the Air War College, and a distinguished graduate of both the Squadron Officer School and the Air Command and Staff College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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