Leaving the Military Felt Like Divorce

As a disclaimer, I’ve never been divorced, so perhaps my analogy is flawed. Nevertheless, I’ve opted to forge ahead. For all of the redeeming aspects of the military, and the fact that I am one of the quickest to defend it when someone speaks ill of it, I find that the glowing recommendation that I could give comes with a caveat. It’s kind of like if I had an ex-husband who is a great guy, but no longer the right man for me. His warts have been revealed to me. If you can live with his warts, then congratulations, you’ve got yourself a great man! Like my imaginary ex-husband, I reached a point where I realized that I couldn’t change the things I didn’t like about the military. Once again, I must also give credit to Adam Grant’s book, Originals, as there were several snippets within it that steered my thoughts in this direction. Specifically, it helped me to better understand my conflicting views on the military, why I chose to leave, why I feel that the military was unlikely to change, and was too contradictory in what it says, and what it reasonably can do. Allow me to explain a little about why.

In the military we have career managers who are responsible for postings, promotions, career course loading and various other elements, by rank and occupation. Each year they conduct a briefing for their target group. One career manager opened my eyes to my need for a change in career when he introduced Frederick Herzburg’s two factor Motivation-Hygiene Theory to the audience. In simple terms, Herzburg’s theory is that factors for job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are different, and that dissatisfaction is not the opposite of satisfaction. Motivation factors, satisfiers, such as achievement, recognition, responsibility, are rooted in the job itself, and have intrinsic value to the employee. In the absence of them, you will not necessarily be dissatisfied, but nor will you be motivated. Hygiene factors, the dissatisfiers, such as company policies, salary, supervision, pertain more to the work environment. They do not serve to motivate the employee, but if they are neglected, or not properly addressed they contribute to job dissatisfaction. My career manager summed up that slide by saying, “If you’re only working for a paycheck, you’ll never be satisfied in the job.” It forced me to consider my situation carefully.

In the position I was filling at the time, I suffered low motivation, and when I saw what was on the horizon for me, it did not seem as if that was likely to improve substantially. More significantly, there were also several dissatisfiers present. There were things in my environment that I did not like. I could have accepted that had I felt that I could somehow influence the environment, but sadly, I knew that I would be fighting a losing battle given where I was in my career. That realization was a stark one for me, as I have never been one who readily admits defeat, but this felt sort of like that to me. I was giving up on something because I couldn’t change it. I compare it to an amicable divorce for irreconcilable differences. You had a great relationship at one point, but either you need to change to learn to live with the dissatisfiers, or the other half of the relationship needs to change so that the dissatisfiers are no longer present. As Grant says in his book, “To change the situation, exit and voice are the only viable alternatives.” I chose exit.

Perhaps I took the easy way out by exiting, but I also think I was realistic in my assessment of military’s ability to change. Aside from the fact that I absolutely lacked the positional and personal power to make real change, the military, by design, is resistant to meaningful change. The very thing that binds us, a culture of mission first, is at odds with change. What I was discovering was that, whether the military was aware of it or not, the words they said were at odds with the action they were taking. There were a couple of areas where I saw this as most prevalent: succession planning, diversity, and this sense of family the military espouses. Grant’s book, specifically the chapter where he summarizes some of the research conducted by sociologist James Barron, helped me to gain a better understanding of why I might be a little bit correct in my assessment of the military.

James Baron’s research led him to conclude that there are three different templates upon which businesses are founded – commitment, professional and star. The professional profile hires for specific skill set, whereas in star they hire for potential. Commitment places emphasis on cultural fit. The commitment profile also motivates their employees differently. While professional and star profiles motivate through challenging tasks, the commitment profile plays on the emotion. They create an emotional tie to the company, a belief in the mission that breeds loyalty and dedication and instills a willingness to put the team first. Baron’s research led him to conclude that those companies with the commitment blueprint are the ones that last. While Baron’s research was focused on the tech sector within Silicon Valley, without a question, the military follows the commitment template. Baron did find a down side to that template over time.

Grant quotes Baron in his book, “Commitment firms have greater difficulty attracting, retaining, or integrating a diverse workforce.” Baron pointed to psychologist Benjamin Schneider’s work to back up his own observations. Schneider found that organizations tend to become more homogeneous over time. They attract, select, socialize, and retain similar people, effectively weeding out diversity in thoughts and values. This portion of Grant’s book validated exactly what I had been lamenting over the tail end of my career, and it felt good to know that maybe there was some basis for me to feel some small measure of discord with an organization that said they supported diversity, but seemed designed to perpetuate hegemony through its personnel policies, either intentionally or through inherent biases that have been perpetuated over time.

While completing the Joint Command and Staff Program, a graduate level program, I engaged in professional discussions, debates, and even dedicated a research paper to what I perceived as a systemic issue in the military – succession planning. I pointed out that we have homogeneous leadership at the top because “like promotes like.” Commanding Officer’s advocate the path they took as the path of choice to get to their position. Despite the fact that we say succession planning is about getting the right person in the right job at the right time, with the needs of the unit first, in practice it is more about what is the right job for the right person at the right time, with the unit’s needs secondary to it. The command centric approach that has dominated succession planning and career management hasn’t been challenged enough – there are other paths that can provide the same experience, and an expanded portfolio of experience at the top can be of benefit.

I’ve also lamented in the past about how the military says it values its people. It does…to the extent it reasonably can. I valued the men and women that worked for me. I cared for their welfare, and I was deeply affected by the loss of lives that I had experienced, be they peers, subordinates, or superiors. It is not uncommon to hear service men and women refer to their brothers or sisters in arms. That sense of family is instilled as a necessary component of the military ethos and establishing the will to fight, to give your life in protecting others. But that sense of family is almost in direct contradiction to another aspect of the military which we must have to be successful – redundancy. No person is irreplaceable. We intentionally outline what the succession in command will be in the event of loss of life. The military is purposefully designed to carry on as a big green machine in spite of who might be removed from it without notice. It also will put the needs of the military ahead of the needs of you and your family when absolutely required. It must, in order for it to achieve the mission.

“The system” supposedly valued me. I was assessed as having above average potential. I represent a demographic they could ill–afford to lose, yet my release was barely a blip on their radar. Rightfully so, if the military was being honest about what it is and what it is designed to do. My career, like a marriage, was good until the end. But there were irreconcilable differences and so a divorce was necessary. I learned a lot in the good years. Equally, I learned a lot through the rough patches. I harbor no ill-will towards my former “partner,” it has a lot of great things to offer. But I know what the military is ultimately designed and intended to do, and that aspects of it that make it effective in that capacity (a culture of commitment) make it resistant to any change beyond the superficial level, and unable to cater to my personal needs and therefore I needed to exit.