June 2, 2011
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld made significant changes to the selection process for senior U.S. military officers with the goal of fostering a more long-term, holistic and strategic approach, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.
When Rumsfeld entered his second tenure as Secretary of Defense in 2001, the selection of senior U.S. military officers for top-ranking positions within the U.S. Department of Defense was largely decided within the uniformed services, and the secretary did not typically challenge service recommendations. However, Rumsfeld, who had experience in the corporate world as a chief executive officer, wanted to be more involved in the process.
"Rumsfeld felt it was the chief executive's job to be very active in identifying, recruiting and placing the best talent available — he called that 'the ribcage of the organization' — and that it wasn't a job to delegate to someone else," said Andrew Hoehn, lead author of the study and vice president and director of RAND Project AIR FORCE.
Long-term strategic planning is particularly important in the Defense Department, Hoehn noted, because unlike the corporate world, the military doesn't have the option of hiring from "outside" for the top positions. The people who will be the military's top leaders 25 years from now are in the service today, and must be trained and cultivated over time. The recent announcement that Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta will replace outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates this summer makes the subject matter particularly timely.
Previously, each of the services — Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps — would offer up the candidates for the very top dozen or so Defense Department positions, such as head of the European Command, according to the study from RAND, a nonprofit research organization. Those candidates might have been the best choice from the individual service's standpoint, but it wasn't clear if they were the best from across all the senior positions in the department of defense.
"Tradition would suggest that the services also had expectations regarding the placement of certain people in certain positions," Hoehn said. "It's not written down, but over time, certain services tend to be associated with certain positions. The U.S. Pacific Command, for example, has always been a Navy officer. What Rumsfeld and his team tried to do was look at these positions without regard to uniform and question why only individuals from a certain service were considered the best choice for the position, instead of matching the individual talent to the position."
Hoehn and his colleagues interviewed principals and key stakeholders engaged in the process of managing senior officer selections before, during and after Rumsfeld's tenure as secretary of defense. In addition, the study draws on the current literature on succession management and prior RAND research on management of senior military officers.
The study reviews senior leader selection and succession planning in general, describes the process developed by Rumsfeld, and investigates how the process evolved after Rumsfeld left office. Hoehn and his colleagues do not reach any "best practice" conclusions but highlight the characteristics of various processes and offer suggestions on key attributes that future defense department leaders might want to consider as they contemplate how senior officer selection and assignments will be managed.
The study found that Rumsfeld's changes resulted in a process that: featured long-term succession planning; identified qualifications for senior positions; built a slate of highly qualified officers; and sought to arrive at a series of "best fit" decisions for the top military positions.
The process also focused on planning for the future by identifying highly capable leaders and associating them with a series of assignments that would prepare them for the top military positions. Rumsfeld and his team also looked at how the demands of particular positions have changed over time. The U.S. European command, for example, is now an area largely at peace, but 25 years ago, would have been a key warfighting command. The U.S. Central Command, on the other hand, includes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some officials in the department of defense viewed the new process as intrusive and meddlesome, interfering with the traditional prerogatives of the military chiefs and ultimately undermining the judgment of the nation's top military leadership. Some felt Rumsfeld and his team were not sufficiently transparent in their selection process. Others, however, saw it as one of Rumsfeld's key accomplishments as secretary of defense.
When Rumsfeld left the defense department in 2006, parts of the process he developed were retained, and others were changed significantly or discarded. Rumsfeld's successor, Robert Gates, agreed to assign many of the duties of selecting the top military leaders to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The subsequent process focused less on succession planning and more on filling immediate vacancies at the time. The process has continued to evolve, at times rekindling some of the efforts Rumsfeld initiated but reshaping them to suit the leadership style of current defense department officials.
The other authors of the study are Albert Robbert and Margaret C. Harrell, both of RAND. The research was supported by RAND's Investment in People and Ideas program, which provides financial resources for independent, researcher-initiated inquiries, such as this one.