Lesson # 13 from Starship Troopers

Today, we’re going to cover the thirteenth lesson I learned from the book Starship Troopers. This is the thirteenth lesson in the 17-lesson mini-series.  If you haven’t read the previous post yet, please do so right now and try to follow it in order.

Lesson # 13: Top Heavy Organizations Are Sometimes Ineffective and Almost Always Ineffcient

Quote: “What kind of an army has more “officers” than corporals? (And more noncoms than privates!) An army organized to lose wars – if history means anything.  An army that is mostly organization, red tape, and overhead, most of whose “soldiers” never fight.”

starship troopers bookMy Take: The best Armies are lean and mean.  And nope, I’m not talking about physically tough (although that doesn’t hurt either).  I’m talking about organizations that have the right percentage of officers compared to NCOs compared to Soldiers.  When you have too many high ranking people and not enough lower ranking people in an organization, you will have lots of red tape, bureaucracy, inefficiency and problems.

I want to speak from personal experience for a moment.  The most effective and most efficient units I’ve ever served in were small units (company level and below).  I think they were successful because they have 1 officer in charge, a few subordinate officers, a fair amount of NCOs and lots of Soldiers.  Think about a typical Army company for a moment.  There are normally four to six officers, 20 to 30 NCOs and 60 to 100 Soldiers.  Personally, I think that’s a good ratio.  Because of the force structure, the unit is forced to be efficient. Bureaucracy is at a bare bones minimum.

When I compare that experience (company level) to my time on a Task Force Staff (1-star command) I served on there was a night and day difference.  With the Task Force Staff, there was 1 General, probably about 20 Colonels, about 40 to 50 Lieutenant Colonels, more Majors and Captains than I can count, a few NCOs and hardly any Soldiers.  While the staff still got the job done, it was far from efficient.  In fact, you had so many people throwing their rank around trying to justify their position that it created more problems than it did good.  And the bureaucracy and red tape was out of this world!

I think any organization that is top heavy will never be efficient.  And in some cases they won’t be effective either.  There should never be more brass than Soldiers, EVER!  Anyone who has served in a top heavy unit knows what I am talking about.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let me know.

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8 thoughts on “Lesson # 13 from Starship Troopers”

  1. I appreciate your experience and point of view gleaned from that experience. Does the Army have a way of searching for and identifying the inefficient practices and making changes that will correct such imbalances and use people more effectively? Do the officers who are aware of the imbalance have a way of making that known and receive the support to do so? Are they free to offer solutions or do they risk their own standing when they offer the information and make suggestions as to how the system could be altered. What reaction is made to the imbalance and/or officer who reports it.

    1. The Army has a Center for Lessons Learned which focused on lessons learned during combat. That information is published frequently as is very valuable. In addition, each unit should have SOPs for a variety of different things. These SOPs document the best practices and are constantly update (supposed to anyway). Overall, the Army does a pretty good job at trying to improve things, but I will be the first to admit that many leaders get stuck on the status quo.

  2. This reminds me of the saying”Too many chiefs and not enough indians.” It’s always a problem when there are too many people at the top. It seems leadership cannot get on the same page, the “workers” receive conflicting information and instructions, and the waste is phenomena, and productivity drops. Streamline and become more effective.

  3. I’ve spent my career in line units. A few years back I was asked to serve as master of ceremonies for the brigade’s casing (departure) ceremony prior to our 2010 deployment. One of the first tasks is to introduce VIP guests. Since the protocol officers who write the script and manage the event don’t know for certain who will actually show up, they include a full list of likely VIPs and cross off the no-shows as they are confirmed. It was then that I learned just how many general officers a state National Guard actually has. I knew about the Adjutant General, of course, and the Assistant Adjutant General. The Army National Guard and Air National Guard service commanders make sense as well. But once we got to positions like “Director of the Joint Staff,” who is a brigadier general, and some other more obscure ones I was scratching my head. When we were in Iraq in 2010 we were based across the lake from Al Faw Palace, the headquarters of United States Forces-Iraq. I have never seen more full colonels concentrated in one place, and to this day I’m still not sure they were all fully and gainfully employed. (One of our guys swore he saw a colonel taking a wastebasket to empty.) I much prefer my company commander and me, our PLs and platoon sergeants, and getting things done.

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