Why talented officers are leaving the military

Tim Kane, economist, Kauffman Foundation.

wfedstaff | June 3, 2015 8:10 pm

The military is losing its best and brightest — and it’s not because of the money.

At DoD, the biggest reason for people leaving is the “massive bureacracy” that treats everyone as equals, said Tim Kane, economist with the Kauffman Foundation.

Kane conducted a survey of 250 West Point graduates and found that 93 percent believe that half or more of “the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.”

Retention is not just a Defense Department problem. Government overall needs to do more to keep its top talent, said a January report from the Partnership for Public Service. Kane offers some suggestions that perhaps other agencies can use as well.


In the military, people are “promoted lockstep” according to the year they enter the service, Kane said. This system does not recognize top talent. Kane said the military could introduce meritocracy by allowing local commanders to hire their officers.

The military can also take a lesson from the private sector by implementing “360 degree reviews” where peers and subordinates review the employee as well, he said.

“I think you’ll see a lot of entrepreneurial leaders flourish in a system like that,” Kane said.

Another challenge to retaining top talent is the military’s lack of flexibility for re-entering the service.

“One of the ridiculous things about the military is, it’s like the priesthood, once you leave, you can never come back,” Kane said.

The military could be missing out on opportunities to keep future leaders. A 2006 study by Korn/Ferry International found that a veteran is three times more likely to become a CEO than a civilian is.

“My nightmare is that we’ve lost a David Petraeus,” Kane said.

Read Kane’s article in the Atlantic.