Friday, February 13, 2009


For the past year or so the value of experience has been a major talking point and serious issue. It was raised by both Clinton and McCain as an issue against Obama. It also seems right now to be part of the concern over how to handle the banking mess. While the popular view may well be to get rid of the damn fools who ran these banks into the ground, folks in positions of leadership seem to be, among other things, worried about losing the expertise held by upper management.

I think, and have been thinking since it was first raised during the campaign, that the concern over experience has been misplaced. Certainly some level of experience is required for any position of leadership and there is a fair amount that one needs to know to be able to be President or run a bank. But it is hardly the case that increasing experience is always a benefit, or that higher levels of experience will always lead to a better outcome. Indeed experience levels somewhat below the highest will often be linked to a fresh or novel outlook that can be quite helpful, whereas the greater experience results in a stilted or ossified outlook that hinders success.

Consider that one could hardly expect the role of commander of a large army to be less in need of experience than head of a bank or even President. But consider also what were America's two largest wars, WWII and the Civil war and who rose to be the commanders in each case. Also, we actually have three cases because in the Civil War, both the Confederacy and the Union needed to put together a General staff. In all three cases most of the leading Generals were not among the most experienced officers at the start of the war. In fact, in most cases the men who would ultimately prove to be our nation's military leaders where not part of the General staff at the commencement of hostilities, or had been promoted to the rank of Brigadier General only a few months before the War started. Consider


Eisenhower was promoted to brigadier general on October 3, 1941, only a few months before Perl Harbor. Nearly the entire General staff was more 'experienced' than he was, but by all accounts he was far more capable than any others for handling the Supreme Command. Now in WWII there were several highly experienced officers who were more experienced than was Eisenhower (Marshall, of course, and McArthur as well, among others).

Bradley - In February 1941, he was promoted to brigadier general (bypassing the rank of colonel) and sent to command Fort Benning (the first from his class to become a general officer). Again, Bradley only reached the lowest rank of the general staff on the eve of the attack on Perl Harbor

Patton - Colonel Patton was promoted to brigadier general on the second day of October in October of 1940. Even Patton was not high up among Generals at the outbreak of the war. Note too among these WWII Generals that their rank at the end of the war was the inverse of their level of experience at the start. Patton actually had the seniority over Bradley who was senior to Eisenhower.

Civil War - Union

Grant - In June of 1861 he returned to military life after being a civilian and was made a Colonel of Illinois militia before working his way up to the highest possible rank in the US Army. Clearly many who had more experience than he did were far less suited to command.

Sherman - May 14, 1861 after a period as a civilian he is commissioned as a Colonel in the United States Army. Again his lack of experience was more than made up for with ability.

Sheridan - Pill Sheridan was in the army at the outbreak of the war, holding the rank of lieutenant. In May of 1861 he was promoted to captain.

Civil War - Confederate

Lee - Robert E. Lee would be the closest thing to an exception to my point here. However, I'm not claiming that experience is bad, rather that it is not some perfect guide to excellence in performance. Lee held rank of the of Colonel at outbreak of war but was immediately offered position on the General Staff by both sides. He was made one of Virginia's first five full Generals when Virginia joined the Confederacy. While Lee was the most experienced of the people on this list, he was still a relatively inexperienced General officer at the start of the war and his skill demonstrated throughout the war far exceeded his initial 'experience' level.

Jackson - At the start of the War T J Jackson was made a Colonel in the Virginia militia based on his passed military experience. He again was not part of the General staff at the start of the war, but was clearly far more capable on officer that mere measure of experience would indicate.

Forrest - Nathan Bedford Forrest enlisted as a private soldier but was quickly raised to rank of Colonel. Still he did not reach General staff until the war was under way. Whatever else one might think of N. B. Forrest as a military commander he was brilliant, but not, at the start of the war, particularly experienced.

In short, in times of crises it might be just as well to remove the highest levels of 'experience' and replace them with folks at a lower level in the organization. I think that was some of Obama's appeal and that we will need to see that done with Bank organization as well.



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