In Defense of Defense Management


We have a problem. A deep, cultural bias against management is crippling the Department of Defense.

Think of the word leader. Who comes to mind? Powerful national figures like Ronald Reagan or Winston Churchill? Change makers like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Ghandhi? When we think of leadership, we think of epoch-making people doing epic things, and the exceptional qualities and actions of these men and women.

Now think of the word manager. Who comes to mind? Perhaps someone sitting behind a desk, moving pieces of paper from the inbox to the outbox. Or an uncaring or uninterested supervisor, inflicting mediocrity upon subordinates. “Manager” evokes caricatures like the mug-wielding “yeaaaah” guy from the movie Office Space, or the rotund, clueless boss from Dilbert. Even the term great manager seems like an oxymoron. Indeed, manager is almost interchangeable with bureaucrat, a four-letter word of organizational life. We think of managers as impediments, barriers, gatekeepers, and naysayers. And what about the role of managers: the exercise of management? If we think positively about it at all, we probably sort them into the same bucket as necessary evils like regular dental check-ups and airport security. Management is perceived as an evil necessitated by the complexities of modern life, with its labyrinthine organizations and innumerable, mind-numbing processes and procedures. There may be no greater symbol of this than the Pentagon, where 23,000 military and civilian personnel work, often for no other reason than because they were unable to avoid being assigned there.

Consider the ways the leaders and managers are characterized:

We lead people, we manage things.”

No manager, however competent, will ever be able to inspire people to endure the hardships and make the sacrifices that we all know must come.”

Or, leadership is about effectiveness while management pursues efficiency. We see it in the “be, know, do” doctrine that emphasizes leadership skills and competences, but says little about what good managers need to know and do, such as organizational performance assessment and development. We educate leaders in our professional military schools to think critically about culture and change, but train managers to regurgitate the existing processes and systems using hundreds of PowerPoint slides. We even denigrate best practices of management as irrelevant to the military context, dismissing them as fads, or slow-rolling their implementation.

The military’s culture misunderstands the nature and significance of management. Leaders and managers lead and manage both people and things. Leaders and managers are concerned with both effectiveness and efficiency. And large, complex organizations only accomplish their missions through good leadership and management. Yet effective management is neither valued nor common in the U.S. military.

The Symptoms of Bad Management

The military’s denigration of management has encouraged systemic organizational dysfunctions: increasing overhead costs due to rising personnel costs, higher spending on acquisitions per unit of combat capability, large headquarters and proliferating civilian positions in defense agencies, and high numbers of officers relative to enlisted personnel. We believe that one failure lies at the heart of all of these problems: The U.S. military is broadly ignorant of the absolute and relative values of organizational inputs and outputs.

This lack of understanding of how to track and measure the value of organizational activities manifests itself in the pervasive budgeting failures of the military. Military organizations throughout the Department of Defense have been held accountable for spending all of their budgets by the end of each fiscal year. Failure to do so — regardless of how wasteful or unnecessary such spending might be — results in a pared-down budget in the next year. In effect, frugality is punished, and budgetary incentives are to spend money, not to save it.

Ignorance of the value of work is evident in the mandatory training plague that afflicts the Department of Defense. For example, for company commanders in the Army, the total number of training days required by all mandatory training directives literally exceeds the number of training days available to company commanders. Commanders are forced to choose which mandatory training is executed and which is not. This is symptomatic of an organization that is grossly ignorant of the concept of opportunity cost—the economic principle that values a good or service in terms of the most valuable alternative. It is from this principle that economics professors have forever annoyed undergraduate students by explaining that there is no free lunch. Consuming the lunch has a cost—the most valuable action not taken while you eat.

For example, instead of using available garrison services or contractors for certain non-military tasks (e.g., moving equipment or furnishings, facility upkeep, graphics), we may be tempted to put available soldiers to work. We believe that we save money, time, and hassles. Soldiers are a sunk cost, so we do not have to pay extra or overtime. There’s no paperwork needed, and we do not have to wait. Yet this only makes sense if the work is the most valuable employment of those personnel. Otherwise, the opportunity cost is higher than the economic value produced, and an alternative source of labor would be better.

The costs of such decisions are real. What was disrupted by reassigning the soldiers? What barriers make it unnecessarily painful to use the proper resources? Sometimes the short-term fix is needed, but that should be the absolute last resort. Instead, because we do not ask the right questions, the short-term fix becomes the norm. The organization suffers for it.

In the absence of understanding the value of activities, the Department of Defense has no reliable economic mechanism to evaluate and resource organizational elements — create, increase, maintain, reduce, divest, close. In the private sector, competition and capital markets drive a process of “creative destruction” in which underperforming or obsolete business functions are eliminated in favor of superior alternatives. In the Department of Defense, growth is the rule and contraction the exception. Organizations and functions that have gradually been added to the department since its founding in 1947 have only rarely been eliminated, even if their original purpose has long since changed or gone away entirely.

We must offer one final example of the Pentagon’s measurement problem: the senior leader “snowflake” phenomenon, last minute scheduling changes and senior leader “taskers” that come down on a daily basis. The snowflake released by a senior leader in the Office of the Secretary of Defense or service staff becomes an avalanche that obliterates the productive plans and intentions of leaders at lower levels. The military is an organization that must be nimble and flexible due to urgent operational requirements. Anecdotally, however, the overwhelming percentage of snowflakes are not caused by urgent operational needs. More often, they come from senior leaders’ understandable, but counterproductive, tendency to view everything they need as urgent, trumping the requirements of everyone below them, including training. Success in the non-operational military is too often defined as meeting the demands of your superiors without considering whether those demands are reasonable and productive. As one company commander observed: “Everything is such a high priority that it makes it seem like nothing is really a priority. And I attribute this to the fact that field-grade officers can simply forward emails without doing any mission analysis.”

Good leadership cannot overcome a systemic failure to understand the value of what we do in the Department of Defense. As two naval officers wrote in 1975, “While the outstanding manager is most likely an effective leader, it does not necessarily follow that the effective leader is an outstanding manager.” These words ring true today. We cannot assume that command experience alone prepares leaders to be effective senior managers. We must develop the skills and knowledge officers require to be effective as executive-level managers.

But the view that effective measurement and management are nuisances is deeply entrenched in the military. We often hear U.S. Army War College students protest that the military is not a business and should not be treated as such. While the military is beholden to national security and not a fiscal bottom line, current fiscal and security environments require devoting attention to how managers run the defense enterprise.

George C. Marshall: The Defense Manager

It is easy to identify what is wrong. What does right look like? Who exemplifies managerial leadership? We offer George C. Marshall, commonly hailed as a great leader, as the consummate defense manager. A quick read of biographies and commentaries provides a litany of examples of accomplishments and important decisions of a managerial nature that directly contributed to Allied victory in World War II.Marshall-G

He became Chief of Staff of the Army after he delivered a direct critique to President Roosevelt on his plan to provide 10,000 aircraft to European allies that lacked crew training and logistics support. Before the United States entered World War II, Marshall sought to transform the War Department, demanding “a drastically complete change, wiping out Civil War institutions” to better serve the war effort. Before Pearl Harbor, he assessed the feasibility of economic mobilization to meet the massive requirements and costs for readying the force, addressed risks of political decisions on arming anti-Axis nations, and fighting to sustain adequate forces given the likely eventual U.S. entry into the war.

The shock of Pearl Harbor led to more than U.S. engagement overseas. During that period, Marshall faced pressures to involve the Army in domestic peacekeeping, took action to bolster U.S. force posture in Alaska, and with President Roosevelt in Casablanca negotiated an improved (and favorable to the U.S.) Allied command structure. Meanwhile, he overcame the dismay of increasing Congressional intrusion into defense affairs and artfully resolved them without undue disruption to the mission.

The Art of Military Management

Management is “the scientific art of attaining intended organizational objectives by working effectively with and through the human and material resources of the firm.” It is about ensuring that routine processes and activities of the organization happen routinely, or are improved so they become routine. Management focuses on quality and reliability of outputs. Is the organization delivering what was promised? Communication is a critical component of managerial work, and managers coordinate, control, and collaborate to foster the smooth functioning of the organization.

Using Marshall’s example, good managers perform three major functions that enable organizational success. Each requires unique knowledge and skills.

Assessment and Measurement. Managers guide and prioritize activities based on clear measures of performance and effectiveness, accurately monitoring both visible and hidden costs of those activities. This is the foundation of all good management, and essential to all other management activities, including organizational design and time management. The increased interconnectivity of everything we use in daily life offers great opportunities to better understand the environment, and if applied in defense allows us to better utilize our resources.

Organizational Design. Managers design and implement organizations to serve its assigned missions. This is more than merely drawing box charts and establishing formal duty descriptions. It includes delegating responsibilities, setting expectations, managing relationships, and aligning activities with requirements. Political economy should be our guide, not politics over economics.

Time Management. Managers govern the allocation and expenditure of the organization’s assets – funding, manpower, and materiel — but time is especially important. Proper use of time helps achieve the maximum benefits of organizational activities. Managers who do not or cannot manage time well are ineffective and inefficient.

Reviewing the defense management dysfunctions mentioned above, we see failures along these three dimensions: unnecessary difficulties and constraints in organizing ourselves to be effective and efficient; discomfort in setting expectations, establishing valid metrics, and using them to measure performance. Most disturbing are the problems with running the calendar, using it to exert power instead of aligning limited resources efficiently to achieve a clear organizational goal.

A Way Ahead

Ineffective management can be overcome through the brute force of excess resources, but we do not have the luxury of brute financial force. The military faces tremendous challenges trying to downsize while mitigating loss of capability. While management may never be as glamorous as leadership, we need more professional managers with the skills and knowledge to restore our preparedness for the next conflict. Leadership is necessary but not sufficient.

We have to educate ourselves differently. The peculiarities of the defense enterprise may mean we cannot rely on civilian institutions to educate our future defense managers. We must infuse management skills and knowledge more explicitly in our professional military education curriculum, especially at the field grade level.

We have to rethink how we cultivate managerial leaders. The notion of separating general officers into operational and enterprise tracks is one way, but we believe managerial leadership is equally applicable at unit level. Inculcating mission command throughout the force is about building trust, but unit leaders also need ways and means of getting the job done. Properly managed bureaucracy aids leaders at every step, not hinders them.

Finally, we have to change our attitudes toward managers and management. We need both leaders and managers. We must stop treating managers as second-class members of the force, and stop viewing management as a bureaucratic anchor weighing down the organization. We must devote ourselves to building an officer corps that understands how to value the things we have and the activities we undertake. We must equip them with the skills and knowledge to differentiate among the various options available to organizational leaders, and to make wiser choices about how to spend the finite time and money available.


Dr. Thomas P. Galvin is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College. He is currently writing books on strategic communication campaigns and defense management.

Dr. Andrew Hill is a regular contributor to War on the Rocks, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Command, Leadership and Management and Director of the Carlisle Scholars Program at the U.S. Army War College.

This paper reflects solely the views of the authors and not necessarily those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.  Authors can be reached at USAWC-DCLM, 122 Forbes Avenue, Carlisle, PA  17013 or or

Image: U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Nicole Enos