Jack of All Trades or Master of None?

January 2011
By Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), SIGNAL Magazine

Where have all the leaders gone? Gone to better opportunities every one; when will we ever learn, when will we ever learn. Who ever would have thought that the words from the popular protest song of the 1960s could be so relevant to the world of technology and leadership today?

Our military is not well-geared to promote experts. It treasures diversity of experience more than it does finely honed expertise. An officer is more likely to be knowledgeable in a broad range of fields than a true expert in any one area. In that vein, is the military cheating itself as well as its dedicated personnel?

A well-rounded résumé as an officer is important for promotion. We rarely applaud and even more infrequently advance those with exceptional areas of expertise. However, in our enlisted ranks, we promote based on expertise that develops over years of intense and highly specialized training.

Yet, a good officer is a jack of all trades, master of none. Many are exceptional leaders but not necessarily experts in any field, and they have held a variety of jobs that may or may not be relevant to their positions. They have relied heavily on the expertise of their enlisted troops, without whom they are at risk for failure.

Unfortunately, many of our talented officer and enlisted personnel have left for greener pastures. Our senior officers and managers now rely on a very slim government staff of mixed levels of knowledge and a high number of supporting contractors. The integrity, expertise or value of the contractors who so diligently serve our government is not in question; in many cases these individuals are the same personnel who once were in uniform. Rather, we should question the knowledge level of the leadership to whom these people report to be able to discern fact from fiction and the ability to manage these complex and massive systems.

Do we really have the expertise we need within our assigned leadership? The foundation of the government team must be able to understand, develop and manage these systems, the budgets and the experts who support them. We rotate our officers every two to three years, allowing little possibility of continuity of experience, program management (PM) or growth. Instead, we keep a constant learning curve in place for those within the programs, along with the need to manage the training of leadership rather than manage the programs.

We rarely promote deep levels of expertise in almost any area of the service. Most of our talent in information technology, cyber, PM, information assurance and acquisition is home-grown success and is subject to the luck of the draw, the shifting winds of assignments and permanent change of station orders. An officer who specializes in any one of these areas is unlikely to be promoted past O-5. Our senior PMs may have been great pilots, super ship drivers or tremendous tankers, but rarely are they subject matter experts on the project for which they are assigned. We consistently manage large programs with senior leaders who in many cases do not have the required levels of knowledge to be effective.

As the chief information officer for Navy Medicine, I relied heavily on the expertise of our staff and the officers who knew everything there was to know about information technology within military health. We relied on the input of doctors and nurses who had strong business skills and knew medicine and their processes. We relied on senior leadership for support. As a reserve line submarine officer with a strong business background in information technology, I may have known business and information technology—but they knew how it applied to the medical field. Without them, we would have failed. Yet their constant concern was that no career path was available to them as information technology experts in the medical world. The same is true in most disciplines within the services. In many cases we do not appreciate nor promote those whose expertise is critical to our success. If we are to continue to be successful as a nation and as a military power, this must change.

As a young officer, I asked then-Adm. Kinnaird R. McKee, USN, why we did not have the same structure as the British military, which had an entire career path for specialists separate from the path for command. If I were a great engineer, instructor or technician, then why was it not possible for me to stay in that field and be promoted through at least O-6? His answer was simple: He would rather have a commanding officer who understood that the submarine’s nuclear reactor was designed to push around the sonar dome and torpedoes—who knew a “good bit” about engineering—than one who knew everything about engineering and a good bit about warfighting and would protect the reactor before he protected the ship. There are times you have to break the reactor to save the ship or complete the mission; the engineer who lived to protect the plant might not make the same decision.

In considering his words, it is difficult to refute his way of thinking when it comes to fighting a war. However, if we do not promote those who really know the plant, who understand medicine, cyber or the importance of information assurance, and allow them to be placed in senior positions that can drive the management and acquisition of systems to build or buy for the future, can we ever be sure we are making the right decisions? We must promote our brightest and encourage a certain number of our force to become true subject matter experts to support a highly complex series of systems. There is a time for great leadership and there is a time for great expertise. Now is a time for both.

Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), is the president and chief executive officer of Grace and Associates LLC and a former chief information officer for Navy Medicine. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of SIGNAL Magazine.