A lead article in today’s Wall Street Journal caught my attention. It tells of the conflicting “failure narratives” circulating through the officer corps of the US military about the campaign in Iraq. Different officers from different branches and with different experiences see the situation – and its implications for future strategy – very differently.

No surprise there, and the last thing I’m going to do in this blog is to wade into the debate on why the US military has struggled in Iraq and what to do about it. That’s a different topic and there are more qualified people to speak about it (like the officers referred to in the WSJ article).

What I do find intriguing, though, is the rift reported in the article between senior officers (typically generals) and more junior officers (captains and below). Not surprisingly, they see things differently – based on generation, personal experience, and role in the military. Some generals are defensive. I can’t blame them – I might feel a little defensive when my own junior officers pin the responsibility for failure on my being out of touch.

Buried in the story is a real, tangible problem that does have some relevance to leading talent-intensive organizations. Because above all, the military is a talent-intensive organization – it has an insatiable need to recruit, train, select, and promote people into positions of increasing responsibility. And according to this article, the military has a serious problem. They are having a hard time holding onto a qualified pool of captains from whom to select and promote the senior officers of the future. As one junior officer was quoted,

As long as I don’t get a DUI or fornicate on my boss’s desk, I will be promoted with my peers.

It’s colorful, but it makes a point. This officer saw the discouragement, disillusionment, and resulting departures of his peers as diluting the talent pool. And don’t miss the disappointment in this quote – who wants to be part of a promotion process where you’re not sure the best are sticking around to even compete. It doesn’t bode well for the future health of the military.

This is not unlike the dilemma facing firms in the private sector, especially professional service firms. I consider the promotion pool of a firm’s managers (those a level or two below partner/principal) a bellwether of future firm health. All other things being equal, if a firm is having a hard time holding onto a sufficiently large, qualified, and enthusiastic manager corps, it’s an indicator that something may be amiss.

Sure, partners have more immediate effect on the growth and profitability of the firm, but if managers are getting burned out, flushed out, or simply opting out of the firm, it starts to make me ask questions about the firm’s health. Are managers looking at the partners and wondering whether they want to be part of that cohort? Or are they deciding – all things considered – to pursue their careers elsewhere?

What do you make of it when you see an anemic manager group in a firm?