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The Marine Corps’ top general is taking aggressive action to flag dysfunctional commanders and, he hopes, improve accountability among leaders.
It’s a two-part strategy, Gen. Jim Amos told Marine Corps Times in an April 24 interview at his home in Washington. In the coming weeks, the Corps will introduce a comprehensive, unit-wide command-climate survey, to be conducted at the battalion and regimental levels when new commanders take over, and then repeated annually, Amos said.
Also, all general officers soon will be reviewed by their peers and subordinates, as well as the generals who oversee them — known as a “360-degree” evaluation.
The Corps’ plan is part of a far-reaching, militarywide effort to rid the force of “toxic leaders” and scandal-scarred senior officers. The Pentagon’s top brass is requiring the individual services to adopt some form of the 360-degree reviews in a a rare top-down effort to reform an aspect of military life that is almost sacrosanct — the power of each service to develop its own system to train, evaluate and promote its officer corps.
In recent months, the Corps has dealt with a host of highly publicized incidents, including hazing, sexual assault and misbehavior in the war zone. Amos attributes these problems to a breakdown of accountability coupled with complacency among those who have been entrusted to lead. In some cases, he said, unfit leaders have managed to move up in spite of deficiencies that should have been flagged early in their careers.
“Sometimes we’re surprised that somebody’s arrived at this position in life,” Amos said. “Perhaps their seniors didn’t really know the truth as they were growing up.”
All voices heard
Pending approval, the new command climate survey will be introduced in early May at the next Commandant’s Commanders Program, a two-week course for command-slated lieutenant colonels and colonels at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va. About 140 officers will see it, along with about 45 sergeants major who attend a corresponding course, said Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for the school’s parent command.
The survey will zero in on a variety of issues a unit may face, Amos said, including leaders’ responsiveness to integrity complaints, sexual assault claims, and maintenance and safety concerns.
“The sergeant major and the senior enlisted leadership, if there are issues, that’ll come up,” Amos said, describing the survey as “almost a get-out-of-jail-free card” for new commanding officers coming into a unit. It will afford the new CO a baseline view of the unit’s health and provide a clear picture of what may need to be improved.
And everyone’s voice will be heard, Amos said. “If it’s an infantry battalion, there will be 900 surveys,” he added, indicating the results will be briefed to the commanding officer and also up one level. “If you’re a squadron, it’ll be briefed to the group commander. ...We’ll do that [also] for regimental commanders, [with the survey results] going up to the commanding general of the division.
“That’s not a 360,” Amos said, “but it kind of is.”
The Corps considered developing 360-degree reviews before settling in 1999 on its current fitness report format, which is used to evaluate everyone from sergeants to two-star generals, said Maj. Shawn Haney, a spokeswoman for Manpower and Reserve Affairs in Quantico.
Officials passed on the 360 concept in favor of one that calls for the first noncommissioned officer, warrant officer or civilian in the reporting chain above an individual being reviewed to assess that Marine’s performance. Additionally, the first officer senior to that Marine serves as a reviewing officer, providing an overall relative assessment, Haney said.
Amos had a 360-degree evaluation done on him during an executive leadership course when he was assistant commandant. He called the process “excruciatingly detailed” and time-consuming — but “fascinating.”
The Corps is searching for a good model to use for its general officers, Amos said, and he expects to introduce something by the end of this year. The results won’t be shown to promotion boards, but they will provide insight into leadership capabilities, thus helping the commandant make assignments.
Input will be limited, however. “For a three-star general or a two-star, they’re not going down to Lance Cpl. Amos,” he said. “They’re going to colonels and lieutenant colonels and majors there in the office, maybe even secretaries.”
The 360-degree reviews for officers may soon become a more integral part of military culture. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recommended the services implement their own 360-degree evaluation processes in a March report to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who promptly agreed.
On a fast track
Dempsey has put the new policy on the fast track, calling for the services to produce “implementation plans” within six months. “The chairman does not want this to sit still,” said Marine Lt. Gen. George Flynn, director of Joint Force Development on the Joint Staff, who is helping to coordinate the services’ plans for putting 360 evaluations into practice.
That will be a challenge. There is clear disagreement about how far and how fast to adopt the concept of allowing subordinates to rate their bosses. For example, while the Corps is limiting its 360-degree reviews to general officers, the Army has begun using them in some form for its entire officer corps.
For all the services, questions remain. For example, it’s unclear how feedback might be applied within the promotion process, if at all. For the services that use these reviews, results typically remain confidential and are seen only by the officer under review.
But at its core, the 360-degree review is a centerpiece for Dempsey’s forcewide effort to maintain the competence and character of officers in all four services.
“The big goal here is better leader development,” Flynn said in an interview. He said the results could be shared with an officer’s senior rater and therefore influence formal evaluations.
“Your senior raters ... are still going to rate your performance,” Flynn said. “But this 360-degree assessment is a tool that they can use to help in your evaluation, as well as in your development. Many times, the senior has a picture that your unit is doing great things. They don’t realize that behind the scenes, you are doing everything you can to demoralize that unit.”
It’s too early to say how each service might link the reviews with its formal evaluation process. “I’m not sure it’s going to exist in a personnel file,” he said, but “as part of your evaluation, an assessment will be done.”
That’s exactly what worries some officers. Flynn said he hopes officers don’t focus on the punitive potential of the new reviews, but rather what it could do for them. “It’s about leader development; it’s not about leader evaluation,” he said. “It’s not ‘How do you expose toxic leaders?’ It’s, ‘How do you never even get to be the toxic leader?’ ”
Up to now, experiments with 360-degree assessments, or “multirater” reviews, have been confined to leadership self-development, meaning the results are shared only with the officer under review and not shown to any senior officer or linked to the traditional evaluation and command screening process.
“When they use 360 reviews for development, its almost like it’s top secret — they don’t sit down and talk to anyone about it,” said Tracy Maylett, a management consultant who has worked with several Army commands to implement small-scale 360-degree reviews.
He said showing results only to the officer being evaluated undermines the effectiveness of the approach. But he acknowledged that giving 360s too much weight also can backfire if reviewers become aware of potential consequences of negative comments and ratings.
Some general and flag officers advocate broader use of 360s than the Corps is planning. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William Mullen, commander of the Corps’ Education Command and president of Marine Corps University, said mixing subordinates’ views into the official evaluation process would help screen out bad leaders before they rise in the ranks.
“You can always fool people above you,” Mullen said in an interview with Marine Corps Times last fall. “But you can never fool the people below you. They know.”
“FITREPS are supposed to evaluate, but again, it is the next senior Marine’s view, and it can truly miss a lot [of issues] that others around and below the person being evaluated see all too clearly,” he said. “Then what does it do to our leadership culture?”
Still, such reviews have major potential benefits, Mullen said, in terms of identifying bad leaders and ensuring they do not get more opportunities to lead Marines. Such reviews also will strongly reinforce all that the Corps says and does in teaching leadership, he added.
“We have some dissonance between what we say/teach and what our leaders are actually doing,” Mullen said. “Do not get me wrong: We have many leaders who are doing a great job. ... We have some who are not, and we cannot afford to let them continue to lead and get promoted so that they can negatively influence even more Marines.”
Maylett advised the military to move cautiously. Implementing 360 reviews “can create damage in the organization if it’s not done correctly,” he said, adding that when formal appraisals become a factor, the situation can turn into “a real mess.”
There is also common-sense logic in favor of letting troops rate their bosses, said retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, former head of the Center for a New American Security think tank.
“The good officers, those who lead by example rather than those who rule through fear, I can’t imagine any of them not wanting their subordinates to go on the record,” he said. “For those who oppose this, I would ask them: ‘What is it that you don’t want your subordinates saying about you? Which behaviors would your subordinate downgrade you for?’ ”■
Staff writers Gina Harkins and Dan Lamothe contributed to this story.