The Cult of the Amateur

Note: for anyone familiar with the Capability Maturity Model, an alternate title for this post would be, “How the DoD Keeps Itself at Level 1 – Chaotic, Ad Hoc, Individual Heroics.”  If you’re not familiar with it, I highly recommend checking it out.  It is a good model that describes characteristics of organizations I address below.  It does not, however, address why those characteristics arise.  “The Cult of Heroism” is my origin-story for this organizational pathology.

…and we was both jumping up and down yelling, “KILL, KILL!”  And the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, said, “You’re our boy.” – Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant”

The concepts of island gigantism and island dwarfism have fascinated me since I first learned about them in high school.  They are examples of how the evolutionary pressures which produce normal (in the bell-curve sense) results in large, less constrained environments, will also produce extreme results in small, more constrained environments.  Social settings are much the same way.  Communities which are…

  1. insular (cults, immigrants, ex-patriots),
  2. clique-based (politics, high school), or
  3. cohort-based (all grade schools, less-so undergrad, much less-so grad/post-grad)…

tend to develop many of these same tendencies.  I have experienced many of these environments, some in particularly extreme ways, some in ways less intense.  Some of these dynamics are merely localized linguistic quirks, others are wide-spread dysfunctions with serious impacts.

“The Cult of the Amateur” is a phrase I coined to discuss a particular such dysfunction that occurs in the context of the Department of Defense.  Like most of my observations, it is tangled; it has multiple threads, some of which spread outward, some of which are recursive and perpetuate the problem.  I will attempt in this post to untangle the threads.

First, a working definition is in order: I define The Cult of the Amateur as: The deliberate elevation and valuation of the heroic, one-off actions of smart, untrained individuals, over systematic, long-lasting improvements carried out by trained professionals.

Various aspects of this problem include:

The Core of the Problem:

It’s Easy for Leaders to Reward Heroes.  The Cult of the Amateur begins here.  Dysfunction in the DoD is axiomatic and is a presumed starting point.  Perhaps a program has been neglected for years and needs to be revived for an upcoming inspection.  Maybe a task must be performed that no one in a unit has experienced before.  Or perhaps a problem which has been passed off from generation-to-generation as the status quo finally comes to a head and must be addressed for one reason or another.  From here, an intelligent, capable, motivated individual moves Heaven and Earth to solve a problem he faces.  He and his team work long hours, do original research, and come up with their own solutions when no official answer exists.  They cobble together an unofficial system which supports the unit through accomplishing the task at hand.

The unit achieves its mission, aces its inspection, passes its audit…whatever the measure of success is.  Leadership bestows the team with accolades, medals, and glowing performance reports.

This is easy.

It takes no effort on the leader’s part to say, “Good job.”  An aced inspection is translated to a standard statement placed on everyone’s regularly-recurring performance report.  The paperwork for awarding a medal can be cumbersome, but is still regular administrivia performed mostly by lower-to-midgrade personnel.

It’s Hard for Leaders to Fix Problems.  After the accolades are passed around, and the problem is fixed, as confirmed by the aforementioned accolades, the problem-solving stops.  Everyone is very pleased that heroism carried the day, but no one in leadership seems to ask why the system depended on heroes in the first place, rather than relying on robust, routine processes.  Doing this would require research, analysis, studies, and perhaps organizational change, regulation re-writing, and the kind of work which no one gets medals for.  A company CFO can praise an auditor’s outstanding work, but so can the CEO, or even the local mayor.  Praise and recognition can be given by experts and amateurs equally well.

Heroism Begets Heroism

* Heroes Promote Heroes.  This is a subset of the well-known “Like-Promotes-Like” phenomenon.  The types of people who get promoted are the types who demonstrate the willingness to be heroes: to go “above and beyond,” to sacrifice evenings, weekends, their physical and mental health, and so on.  The incentive for heroism is set, and the fact that the ones getting promoted become the ones later doing the promoting, the cycle continues.  Over time, the institutional valuation of success-at-any-cost becomes fixed.

* The Rise of the Amateur. This is where the problem reaches full-circle.  An institution with a record of successes achieved by the heroic ad-hoc efforts of amateurs confidently, deliberately appoints amateurs to perform tasks.  Certain investigations, authorizations, certifications, or other tasks, are assigned based on rank; sometimes requiring specific qualifications, sometimes not.  “Smart Guys” of the appropriate rank become the go-to for solutions.  In many ways this echoes the military’s historical connections with feudal leadership, where an aristocrat might well have been the most educated person around, or whose personal wealth and clout truly were instrumental in accomplishing a task.  However, such considerations line up poorly with modern-day meritocratic society where education is widespread.

The Cycle Entrenches Itself

* Training and Experience are Devalued.  Because “Smart Guys” are relied upon to fix things, the perceived value of training and experience sinks.  Which leads directly to…

* The Worship of Breadth and Diversity.  In an organization which commits itself to “Smart Guys” as its saviors, the most important thing is to expose these “Smart Guys” to as many different experiences as possible.  The purpose of this is to ensure that when these individuals reach a certain rank where they have the power to oversee and fix the entire system, they have seen the entire system.  It’s a nice thought, however…

The Department of Defense is enormous.  A 20-year career isn’t time to see the whole DoD, or even a tiny fraction of it.  Deliberately flinging developing leaders to various corners of the enterprise in order to develop “breadth” leaves these individuals in a state frequently described as “a mile-wide and an inch-deep.”  There is no such thing as having the rank and power to “oversee and fix the entire system.”  At best, relatively few individuals will make it to a point where they can control something for a short period of time.  Perhaps their experiences prepared them for it.  Perhaps not.

* Systematically Avoiding Return on Investment.  With the need for individuals to achieve breadth, it goes without saying that an individual cannot ever have an assignment similar to a previous one.  Nor can he be placed into a field where he has formal education.  To do so would be to 1) hinder opportunities to “broaden,” and 2) give credence to the value of expertise and training, over that of try-hard heroism.  This is not a deliberate avoidance of Return on Investment in the sense that the avoidance is not the purpose.  It is, however, a systematic side effect of the commitment to “breadth.”


* Reinventing the Wheel.  This much should be obvious.  An organization which does not codify its lessons learn or professionalize its personnel will spend extraordinary efforts solving the same problems over and over throughout its history.

* Forfeiting Economy of Scale and Automation.  When a system or program is, for example, kept running by a locally developed spreadsheet, chances are good that the spreadsheet requires a lot of manual entries and adjustments.  An individual moving from one office to another has to learn a new local spreadsheet.  Both problems could be avoided with a standard, enterprise-wide solution.  The cost of establishing such a solution would be earned back by the increased productivity achieved after implementation.  But this requires a serious up-front effort, especially on the part of leadership, and it is easier to continually reward the heroes developing local solutions than it is to implement a standard solution.

 * Lack of Expertise and Professionalism.  Look no further than the contemporary discussions of the role of commanders in the military justice system to see this consequence played out.  Nothing about being a professional pilot, aircraft mechanic, or doctor, prepares an individual to assume the legal roles and responsibilities embodied in the office of a military unit commander.  Yet the organization acts as if the publishing of administrative orders and the assumption of command ceremony convey all that is necessary to carry out these duties.  For some reason though, no one is suddenly imbued with the ability to fly airplanes, fix airplanes, or diagnose and treat diseases by conveyance of a piece of paper and an hour-long public event.

* Personal Costs.  Let’s refocus from the organization back to the individual hero.  In efforts to address widespread mental health problems, the military has developed many strategies.  Among these is “Resilience.”  While there are a lot of buzzwords and diagrams that go along with it, resiliency is simply the idea that in order to be healthy, one must take care of oneself.  This includes taking care of oneself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  In practical terms, it means, make time to exercise.  Make time to see your family.  Make time to blow off steam, to experience the world, to pursue hobbies.  Make time to exercise one’s faith.  This seems so simple, so why does it even need to be said?

Because heroes, by definition, don’t have time.  Very few people need help to stay healthy provided they have time.  Time to cook.  Time to sleep.  Time to exercise.  Time to see the family.  And this is all time that gets eaten up on long shifts, weekend shifts, deployments, etc.  If we want to improve resiliency, we have to improve our processes and make better use of our personnel’s time.

This is a big issue, and one that I feel strongly about.  I’ve spoken about it informally for years to friends of mine, and over that time it has grown to include the many aspects I listed above.  For various reasons I thought it was appropriate to begin writing and codifying it now, but this is by no means the final or complete form of this idea.  As always, I fear my writing doesn’t quite express the idea adequately.  Therefore, I look forward to feedback in the near-term, and hope to revisit this topic in the future with the benefit of discussion and further reflection, both on the idea itself and my presentation of it.


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