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If you believe the company line, Air Force officer promotions are all about selecting the best performers for the biggest jobs, matching responsibility with capability. In this romanticized version of things, the best leaders reach the highest ranks, with generals forming an elite corps.

The truth is more complicated. The officer promotion system sometimes gets it right, but this is incidental to an obsessive focus on massaging the careers and promotions of fair-haired favorites who are identified very early in their careers as “High-Potential Officers” … or “HPOs.”

It’s these HPOs who are carefully guided through the career wickets to become generals — not because they’re necessarily the best the service has to offer, but because they were chosen by powerful sponsors very early in their careers and given far more attention and development than their peers.

Before proceeding, we should dispense with a simple but elusive principle. 

Let us consider John and Bill. Both are both Air Force Captains. Both are solid performers overall, with very little difference noticeable in the degrees of quality and productivity exhibited by the teams they lead. Each is in the upper competitive region of the year group they share. Yet, when the time comes for residence developmental education designation, John gets the last “selected” tag and Bill is the first guy below the cutoff. 

In the years that follow, their comparative performance levels don’t change, but their opportunities do. John is propelled along by the system while Bill has to fight for every inch. Ultimately, John has a chance to be a general officer and Bill doesn’t, even though each is capable of filling the role. 

This is an interesting basic storyline, but what usually happens is even more fascinating. Because John’s career is handled by more powerful and highly placed benefactors, he moves more often and is given a more broad selection of jobs over time than Bill, who spends most of his time deepening and broadening within his main operational line of work. When all is said and done, John has had a more frenetic and varied experience, but has also grown more cynical and detached, having frequently sipped from the poison chalices handed out on the staff.

But he’s also more savvy about things like budgets, politics, and how to survive the career landmines emplaced by competitors. Because he has top cover, John has maybe even survived a fumble or two by the time he starts breaching the big time.

Bill, meanwhile, has maintained a problem-solving and planning orientation as well as his connection to the people who get the job done. He hasn’t become as intimate with the bureaucracy as John, but he knows the service mission inside and out and has the professional and staff education to help him put that knowledge into practice. In other words, Bill, the guy who doesn’t go on to make general, is probably the better leader.

This is the magic of the HPO program, by which generals pick winners mainly according to the same earmarks relied upon decades in the past … rather than on the basis of duty performance. But the biggest sin of the program isn’t its existence so much as its opacity, which blankets officer promotions in a cloud of Kafkaesque confusion. No one knows for certain exactly how better leaders lose out to worse ones, and that leads to deep disaffection and disunity among those charged with leading airmen and executing the world’s most consequential combat operations.

HPO has existed in some form for as long as anyone can remember. In today’s Air Force, it’s the super-secret list of “made guys” whose assignments are personally managed by uniformed political appointees. Major commands keep carefully guarded “eyes only” lists of HPOs, and these lists are used to coordinate assignments and developmental education slots. They are never openly shared with their subjects for fear of inflating their sense of entitlement (though many ply their connections well enough to catch a glimpse), and they’re never shared with their non-subjects for fear of them learning the truth: the instant they weren’t selected for residence IDE, they were on the outside looking in. 

But despite this secrecy, these lists do exist … and officers subject to their impacts are generally aware of a nebulous force guiding the selection of winners and losers, even if they can’t put their finger on who is controlling it or how it works. This is the dark engine motoring unhealthy careerism in our Air Force.

Here’s an excerpt of a recent list from Air Combat Command.

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Note the markings. “Eyes only.” “Sensitive senior leader info.” “Potential Brigadier General contenders.”

In other words, being a great leader as a Colonel isn’t enough to be a contender for the next level. You have to be on this list first, and only the anointed are suitably mature and enlightened enough to ponder who should be similarly anointed.

This is not to say the HPO program is all bad. It makes sense that the Air Force should try to find and develop its senior leaders early. In fact, there’s a great argument that making someone wait until his or her late 40s to be considered for generalship is asinine, given that most people are in their leadership prime well before that time and perfectly capable of running huge organizations regardless of age. The program provides for the proactive management of talent, which is more than can be said for its mainline personnel programs. Through this approach, the Air Force also hopes to avoid timing bottlenecks that create the necessity for multiple short assignments in succession to posture officers for promotion to brigadier general. This is a noble goal that also helps retain talent that might otherwise detach if traumatized by too much instability in too short a space of time.

But the downsides can’t be ignored. Any program this insular will suffer from lack of mainstream influence. HPOs succeed by checking the same squares their benefactors checked, and this locks the Air Force into a hermetic vacuum where retraced paths are valued more than bold steps. Generals insist on the same process that made them successful, resisting the reality that the world has changed over the years, as has the Air Force, and only new role models armed with novel perspectives can make the institution successful.

A bigger problem is in the basic operation of the system. Choosing winners based on IDE selection (which is basically what the system does) means relying on less than eight years of documented performance to make a decision with decades-long implications. This means a “distinguished graduate” award from squadron officer school or a few medals/awards early in a career can have a disproportionate impact on who ends up leading the service at the highest levels. It would be one thing if the HPO construct allowed for “false positives” … but this is very much not the case. Once an officer’s wagon is hitched to a particular star, there’s no going back … because to let that officer fail would damage the general who sponsored him. 

But if there are false positives, there must also be false negatives, and this is the real miss of the system. A handful of generals deciding who gets moved along means that the narrowness of subjectivity takes over, and too many superb leaders are left out of the big plan. Sometimes, these officers spend years turning in superior performance while the system continually ignores them because they’re not on the special list. They don’t get pushed for early promotion, miss out on school, and require “glove saves” from influential senior leaders to keep them in the game. This hurts the service.

Taking a step back, the biggest pathology fed by HPO is cronyism. Airmen at all levels abide in the belief that generals are objective and impartial evaluators who ensure the service rewards those demonstrating the greatest potential for advancement. HPO confounds this by expecting if not forcing decision makers to give “chosen” officers a leg up. This is not problematic when they actually outperform their peers. But when they are merely satisfactory, mediocre, or actually screw things up, they magically keep moving ip while better performing competitors fall away.

This is a disturbance of the meritocracy that lies at the heart of the ideal Air Force … the one airmen desperately want to believe in … the one they still bleed blue for. It’s one thing to accept that meritocracies aren’t perfect. It’s another to countenance a system that actively subverts a merit basis for advancement.

For years now, the senior ranks of our military services have failed their people and the nation. There has been a striking lack of candor, moral courage, and boldness. This is a perfectly logical consequence of promoting based on political ability and cronyism rather than demonstrated leadership capacity. 

Should our generals be our best leaders? I happen to believe that in an organization whose raison d’etre is fighting and winning wars, the answer is unquestionably yes. For that reason, it’s time to overhaul this stale approach to finding and developing our senior leaders.