The Business of a Profession

The 2015 U.S. Army Operating Concept (AOC) describes a complex and uncertain world where the nation will call upon the Army to win the “contest of wills” across multiple domains.  The AOC emphasizes the all-volunteer force, led by “Leaders and Soldiers [who] are committed to each other and the Army Professional Ethic.”[1] The 2010 U.S Army White Paper,  “The Profession of Arms” defines professionalism as “uniquely expert work,” and compares the military to other professions, specifically, the clergy, law, and medicine.  It further reinforces the need for trust, especially from the junior practitioners of the profession.[2]  

Within this context, the latest force structure drawdown is an example of a significant challenge to the Army’s identity as a profession as well as to the required trust from its ranks.  Broadly, medical and legal practitioners do not have to be concerned their professions will be permanently cut by a percentage every decade.  Faced with budget reductions at their current place of employment, they may simply transfer locations or practice at another hospital or firmnot be forced to find a new profession entirely. Moreover, and unlike the Army, increased demand on these professions does not result in rapid promotions from within, such as advancing nurses to surgeons and law clerks to attorneys.  The Army’s practices of rapid contraction and expansion of employees lend themselves to a comparison with large corporations that respond to market forces rather than traditional professions like medicine and law.

An August 2015 New York Times exposé of business and personnel standards at provides the U.S Army with an opportunity for comparing its practices to the globe’s largest retailer. Though it focuses mostly on employees’ work-life balance, the Times article provides insights into the challenges of operating a large enterprise and, in turn, impacts on trust within an organization.  The article highlights three Amazon corporate practices that lend themselves to direct comparison with current Army challenges: 1) recruiting, evaluating and eliminating people, 2) use and reliance on data, 3) and work culture.[3]

People: Recruiting, Evaluating and Eliminating

Amazon and the U.S. Army depart from the same point: attracting and selecting the best available candidates from their respective hiring pools.  Senior Leaders have often said the Army’s standards are so high that two-thirds of America’s youth are ineligible to join its ranks, meaning the Army is directly competing with colleges and other opportunities to fill its ranks.[4] The United States Military Academy has consistently maintained acceptance levels at single digit percentages for applicants.[5] How do Amazon and the Army evaluate and manage this extremely talented work force?

The two organizations take a different approach in the use and purpose of evaluations.  Both Amazon and the U.S. Army rely on a continuous deliberate process to evaluate the performance of their respective work forces.  Amazon has instituted “sophisticated electronic systems” to track all facets of shipping and packing to monitor individual employee efficiency.[6] The corporation utilizes a transparent peer evaluation system based on rigorous, continuing feedback to foster and promote their corporate tenets through competition among peers.[7] The Army also evaluates through a rigid and disciplined evaluation system; however, the Army stands in contrast to the immediate and objectively competitive Amazon peer review system.[8] The Army’s longer periods of evaluation performance, and their subjective nature, coupled with evaluation privacy and blind peer reviews, are much less transparent but also more in tune with a profession that seeks to develop its practitioners effectiveness than maximize corporate and worker efficiency.[9]  

The sharpest similarity appears in how both organizations cull talent.  Like the Army’s use of evaluation reports, Amazon utilizes its massive evaluation data to conduct, “purposeful Darwinism,” or the constant “hiring, driving and cutting” of its workforce.[10]  Annually, Amazon convenes an “Organizational Level Review,” where managers pore over employee files filled with evaluation metrics and discuss and rank their employees, for the purpose of culling the bottom performers.[11]  This process is eerily similar to the Army’s “up or out” practices and the current use of Selective Early Retirement Boards (SERB) and the Qualitative Service Program (QMP) to conduct the current force draw-down.  Though forced by outside pressuressuch as the 2011 Budget Control Act, known colloquially as “sequestration”rather than efficiency or effectiveness, the Army’s historical culling[12] of its workforce puts it in contrast with the legal or medical professions and places significant challenges of trust within the organization.[13] Industry leaders such as Google and Microsoft have abandoned much of the practice of constant evaluation and now routinely hire Amazon employees who have been severed.[14] There are no other U.S. armies to hire the practitioners of “uniquely expert work” separated from the profession of arms. Further challenging the trust underpinning the all-volunteer force, former Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, recently concluded that on average employability and wages of former military members are not as high as someone who began in the private sector.[15]

The Use of and Reliance on Data

Amazon’s reliance on real-time data revolutionized the retail industry. To take advantage of the volumes of data it generates through its website, Amazon has developed extensive systems to measure every facet of its operations to constantly seek metrics for improvement and efficiency.  As the Times exposé articulates, “Amazon employees are held accountable for a staggering array of metrics.”[16] Similarly, the U.S. Army has had its own fascination with data.  From the Air Corps’ targeting metrics in World War II, to body counts in Vietnam, to partner capacity bubble charts in Iraq and provincial security objectives in Afghanistan, the Army has used data for strategic decision making for decades.  

Unlike Amazon, however, where much of the data collection is automated, standardized, and not a burden to the users, data collection in the Army has rapidly and alarmingly overwhelmed practitioners of the Army profession at the lowest tactical levels.  From mind numbing weekly Command and Staff and training meetings, to Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) training updates, to story-boards and leave packets, the Army’s junior professionals are struggling to keep up with the organization’s hunger for data and requirements.[17] A 2002 U.S. Army War College (AWC) study concluded, given the historically high administrative burdens and data tracking requirements, there simply was not enough time for company commanders to execute critical combat trainingarguably the heart of the profession.[18]

The demand for data continues to threaten the Army’s professional ethic.  Even more troubling is the AWC follow-up study in 2015 which concluded that not only had the administrative burden and data collection[19] increased for the profession’s leaders, but was also fostering a culture of selective compliance and dishonest or lax reporting.[20] More troubling and unlike Amazon, which relies heavily on the massive amounts of real time data it collects, the study concluded the Army collects vast amounts of data, that are often not standardizedeven though leaders themselves admit doubting the value, accuracy, or timeliness of the data.[21]  Trust suffers; the collection of data becomes for data’s sake and overwhelms the junior practitioners at the expense of both efficiency and effectiveness of the profession.

Work Culture

The Times critique on Amazon’s corporate culture went viral on social media and prompted many responses on blogs and editorial pages.  Using anonymous anecdotes, the Times painted Amazon as aggressive, mission focused, talented, and striving to “do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy.”[22] In the AOC, the Army describes itself using similar language as “security challenges require the U.S. Army to innovate to ensure that forces are prepared to accomplish future missions.”[23]

Amazon and the Army appear similar in goals. Yet the Times article uses collected testimonies to sharply criticize Amazon for its corporate culture as abusive, if not downright cruel.[24]  Some of the criticisms against Amazon certainly echo within the Army.  From long hours, to demanding supervisors, the Army has its share of criticism about its work culture.

The Army is full of anecdotal evidence of leadership like those described at Amazon.  From waiting for the boss to go home, to looking at email time stamps and checking the parking lot to verify which subordinates are still at work, the Army’s work ethos is not dissimilar to the description of Amazon in the Times.  However, these criticisms are applicable to the traditional professions as well, such as the conditions and morale of medical interns or legal clerks. Though the Army’s hierarchical system is in sharp contrast to Amazon’s concepts of open dissension, criticism and input from its most junior employees, few other professions have taken the lead like the U.S. Army in addressing the flaws or criticisms of its work culture.[25] In 2014, the Army began defining the behavior the Times described about Amazon as “toxic leadership,” and began a deliberate campaign to eradicate it.[26] While Amazon is still responding to its work climate allegations the Times exposed, the U.S. Army has dedicated itself to building trust and studying these issues academically, creating change from within.  


Some of the Army’s enterprise practices draw uncomfortable similarities to the Times’ criticisms of Amazon. Though the Army has taken positive initial steps by addressing toxic leadership, its methods for assessing and culling its people, as well as the management of superfluous amounts of data, negatively impact trust inside the profession. The very nature and size of the Army as a government service will always require complex management systems. Though it is appropriate to look at similar large enterprises for the best practices to efficiently apply limited resources, the Army’s role as the profession of arms is about effectiveness. Like the historic professions, patients want to get healed; the accused want to be exonerated, and the Army must win the “contest of wills.” Stewards of the profession of arms must constantly assess the efficiency of the institution’ systems and practices and their impact on effectivenessall while preserving the trust of not only the American people, but also the Army’s own soldiers, civilians and families.

Mike Jason is an active duty army officer; a graduate of West Point with a masters from Georgetown University.  He has had varied operational and strategic career, including command of a Task Force in Afghanistan and tours in the Pentagon.  He is currently an Army War College Fellow at the Center for High Defense Studies in Rome, specializing in the NATO alliance and its future. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, “The U.S. Army Operating Concept, Win in a Complex World, 2020-2040,” 31 Oct 2014, 8-9.

[2] U.S. Army White Paper, “The Profession of Arms,” 8 Dec 2010, 2.

[3] Jodi Kantor and David Streitfield,“Inside Amazon: Wrestling with Bog Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” The New York Times, August 15, 2015.

[4] Miriam Jordan, “Recruits’ Ineligibility Tests Military Recruiters,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 Jun 2014.

[5] U.S. News and World Report, “Top-100 Lowest Acceptance Rates,” Fall 2013.

[6] Kantor and Streitfield.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff,” (Kantor and Streitfeld)

[9] The U.S. Army’s 360-Degree Evaluation.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] After each major conflict in US history, the US Army has conducted significant reductions in its force structure; notable examples are demobilizations after the Civil War, WWI, and WWII.  Since the creation of the All Volunteer Army, this is the second major draw down; t he first was after Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

[13] “In 2015, Army will lose 20,000 Soldiers in Drawdown,” Army Times, 27 Dec 2014.

[14] Kantor and Streitfield.

[15] John Hudson, “Ben Bernanke:  Being in the Military Won’t Actually Help You in the Real World,” Foreign Policy, 17 Aug 2015,

[16] Kantor and Streitfield.

[17] In one Army Active Duty unit in 2011, the requirement for a four-day weekend pass packet, a staggering 11 pages, included the following items:  Brigade Cover checklist, DA-31 Leave form, copy of driver's licenses, copy of insurance, vehicle inspection, TRADOC TRiPS print out, FORSCOM Risk Assessment, supervisor counseling, flight itinerary, unit generated pact (I will not drink and drive etc.), and Leave and Earning Statement.  A Company Commander and First Sergeant would have to process over 100 such packets each leave or pass period. For outside international leave, to include the Caribbean, Canada or Mexico there are several additional requirements.

[18] Leonard Wong, “Stifled Innovation? Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today, “ Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, April 2002, 21-22.

[19] A sample list of company-level generated compliance and information data includes:  storyboards, partner training assessments, polling site assessments, property book inventories, Physical Fitness reports, marksmanship data, licensing data, SHARP training data, maintenance data, services data, sensitive items reports, privately owned cars inspections, leave packets, financial transactions, commander emergency relief projects fund management, award statistics, evaluation statistics, promotion and schooling statistics.

[20] Stephen J. Gerras and Leonard Wong, “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession,” Strategic Studies Institute and US Army War College Press, February 2015,  1-4.

[21] Ibid, 12.

[22] Kantor and Streitfield.

[23] Army Operating Concept (AOC), 8.

[24] Kantor and Streitfield.

[25] A notable contrast is the Times’ criticism of Amazon’s family practices, such as specific incidents where supervisors discouraging new parents from a taking any paternity or maternity leave and a vignette where a supervisor expected a female employee at her desk the day after a miscarriage. The Army in contrast has made extensive use of liberal emergency leave policies that remain under the discretion of local commanders.  Furthermore, the Army grants new fathers 10 days of paternity leave to be taken when it is best for the soldier and family, including cases of adoption.  Even in combat, many commanders support this policy, where the military incurs the cost of travel back to the family. Expecting mothers are themselves exempt from deployment and tough tactical training immediately upon notification of pregnancy and for months after the birth of the child.

[26] “Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers' will, initiative, and potential and destroys unit morale” Daniel Zwerdling, “Army Takes on its Own Toxic Leaders,” NPR News, 6 Jan 2014.