Credentialism – It’s Ruining Your Team

America is a land founded on merit.  The idea is simple – you get what you earn.  Maybe you were born with incredible athletic or intellectual talent, but you are painfully lazy.  Guess what?  A less naturally gifted individual with a strong work ethic is going to make the team, take your job, and probably marry your girlfriend too.


It has been the central organizing principle of excellent organizations in the private sector and in the military.  Yet, despite the obvious value of making personnel decisions based solely on actual performance relevant to the next job, merit is under assault in the organization I work in – the United States Air Force – and I suspect it is under assault in your organization too. 

Everything in Life is About Next

At one point in my career, I taught Air Force ROTC at the University of Virginia.  For those who don’t know, UVa is an outstanding university consistently ranked near the very top nationally in terms of public universities, usually coming in at #2 just behind UC-Berkeley.  In other words, the quality of students at UVa is high; the quality of professors is high; and the school offers opportunities and resources you just can’t get at lesser schools. Meaning, if you graduate from UVa, you are going to have some nice credentials. 

My students at UVa knew this and rightfully took pride in their institution.  They certainly knew that a sheepskin from UVa was worth more than my diploma from the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.  Furthermore, students would measure their academic performance against their peers.  It would amuse me to listen to them debate who had the tougher academic major or more impressive GPA.  So I made it a point to tell this to all of my graduating seniors:

Listen, after you graduate and you are commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force, no one will ever ask you what your GPA is again; no one is going to care if you majored in electrical engineering or political science.  All that matters in the real world is performance.  Some of you sitting in this room have a 3.75 GPA in chemical engineering and when you get on active duty you are going to be shocked by what happens to you.  You are going to be at your first assignment and some other lieutenant who had a 2.37 GPA from Northwest-Southern State University is going to run circles around you.  He is going to be better prepared, get the best assignments, and the commander is going to make him, not you, the go-to guy.  Do you know why?  Because, the truth is everything in life is about “next.”  No one cares how good a student you were at UVa.  The day you graduate start focusing on next.  It comes down to merit.”

And I think that story used to be true – but something has changed.

Credentialism – an Inaccurate Tool Used by Lazy Leaders

Credentialism is destroying the Air Force.  Simply put, credentialism is the tendency of senior leaders to over-value subordinates’ resumes.  If someone has been to the right school or the right training, that diploma is more highly valued than actual job performance.  Senior leaders choose resumes over actual performance because senior leaders think it is easier and because they haven’t taken the time to know the people they are actually selecting.  In other words, senior leaders are incredibly lazy when selecting who should be promoted or offered the best jobs.

Let me give you a practical and actual example.  I have worked for and with multiple leaders in the Air Force and more often than not, these senior leaders have developed elaborate spread sheets to measure their subordinates’ performance and ability to command.  What is on these spreadsheets?  Things like:

–          How was he/she commissioned (Academy?  ROTC? OTS?)

–          Did they earn Distinguished Graduate at commissioning?

–          Did they attend Squadron Officer School? ( a school for Captains)

–          Have they been to special training?  (Things like Weapons School)

–          Have they won awards?  How many?

You get the idea. 

Some senior leaders will have between 15 – 20 categories on their spreadsheet, covering 15 years of material.  The more squares you are able to fill…well isn’t it obvious?  The more squares you fill, the more qualified you are to promote into a more important leadership job.  In this credentialism system, the more squares you fill the better leader you are.  At no time in this process does the senior leader doing the hiring pause to think:  exactly what does someone’s performance as a cadet at the Air Force Academy have to do with that same person’s ability to be a squadron commander as a Lt. Colonel some 14 – 16 years later?

In other words, just as our aforementioned college seniors liked to compare GPAs and academic majors because they didn’t know what else to do, our Colonels and Generals have decided to adopt credentialism because they don’t know what else to do.

I’ve actually heard senior leaders say things like “well yes, that Major has done an outstanding job and is a great leader in his current job – but he doesn’t have the pedigree” (re: squares filled). 

The Negative Effects of Credentialism

Credentialism if left unchecked will destroy your organization, or your business, or any team.  If you are a senior leader who has decided to rely on resumes rather than recent performance and leadership potential, you are creating multiple negative effects in your organization.

1.  It creates the always annoying, square-filling subordinate

This first creation is a natural outcome of credentialism.   Namely, subordinates will pick up very quickly on the Boss’s criteria.  If they see that they have squares to fill, they will do it.  I have seen first-hand the career gymnastics some officers in the Air Force engage in.  They desperately spend all their time filling the squares.  So when they go to training, it isn’t to learn, but to be recognized as a distinguished graduate.  Why?  Because the Boss has distinguished graduate on his spread sheet, so I will earn an award even if I have the worst interpersonal relationships of anyone attending the course.  What if the Boss has a school that is on his spread sheet?  The square-filling subordinate will break his neck getting there.  Specialized training? Staff Jobs? Advanced degrees?  Whatever is on the spread sheet, come hell or high water, the square-filling subordinate will be there. 

I know what some are thinking:  “Jeez, Cheetham! What is wrong with doing what your Boss asks of you?” 

Let me cut to the chase.  The square-filling subordinate is spending all his time focused UPWARD.  He is brown-nosing.  He is spending more time filling squares and building resumes than actually leading in his current job.  He learns early on to fill the squares and never mind with actually leading, or learning to team with peers in order to succeed.  For these people, everything is about them.  This is not the trait to promote in your organization.

2.  It Leads to Picking the Wrong People to Lead.  

When you are using the wrong criteria to choose your leader, you are always going to pick the wrong person.

Sports offers wonderful leadership illustrations and it is certainly true here.  Let’s compare two NFL Linebackers.  The first linebacker was not a great college player.  He played 4 seasons in the NFL, barely made the football team each season and spent most of his time on the bench or covering kickoffs.  After retiring at the age of 28 he went on to toil for 7 years as an assistant coach for teams that never won championships, until an NFL team took a chance on him and hired him as a head coach.

The second linebacker was a star in college.  He was the rookie defensive player of the year in his first season.  He was selected to the Pro Bowl 10 times, won a Super Bowl, and was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame.  He coached briefly as an assistant for a little over 2 years.  When his team fired the head coach, this former star player was promoted early to head coach.

The first is Bill Cowher who went on to become one of the great coaches in NFL history.  The second is Mike Singletary, one of the greatest players and worst coaches in NFL history. 

Singletary had all the credentials; all-pro, cool nick-name (Iron Mike), a Super Bowl ring while playing on a Bears team that had one of the best defenses in the history of the sport.  What did Cowher have?  Not much.  A bubble-player who barely made teams, didn’t play much and then 7 years grinding as an assistant coach.  He didn’t have much at all on paper.

In a resume or spread sheet show down – Mike Singletary would be hired over Bill Cowher every time.  Sorry Bill, according to my spreadsheet, as a linebacker you had no pro bowl appearances, no super bowl victories and you don’t even have a cool nickname; we are hiring Singletary. 

What a tragedy.

3. It discourages great/late performers

Ask anyone you meet if they changed very much between the age of 22 and 34.  Is there anyone who would answer “no I haven’t changed at all?” Only an insane person would remain unchanged during those 12 years.  Yet, we have Colonels and Generals who create spreadsheets that measure how qualified someone who is 34 years old is to lead using analysis of their performance in training at age 22!  (And that training report was written by someone no one has ever heard of)

All that kind of system does is discourage great/late performers.  It demoralizes the people who keep getting better through hard work and merit.  Why would you set up a system that would prevent your organization’s Bill Cowher from being discovered?

How bizarre is it that we have a system that considers not what a Major is doing today, but rather what he did as a cadet in college 12 years ago?   

The ultimate message for late/great performers – those who started slow but learned through actual experience (not school) and actual leadership (not staff) and actual trial by fire (not brown-nosing a general officer) – the message to these critically important people is:  “abandon hope, your squares are a mess.” 

A Return to Merit

It is time for a return to a merit-based system of promotion and a merit-based system for choosing leaders.  If two officers are in similar jobs and the one with the “great resume” is not performing better than the one with the degree from Northwest Southern State – have some integrity and select the second officer for the leadership job.

If you have officers who have resumes full of schools, and classes, special assignments in the White House, special training, or as an Aide to a General, just remember one thing:  while that officer was running around desperately filling squares on your spreadsheet in order to impress you, he wasn’t leading.  He was too busy chasing your squares.  The fact remains that you cannot teach experience at a school.  Leaders are built through actually leading.  Square-filling is a lot of things but leading is not one of those things.

Senior leader, instead of breaking out your spread sheet, why not try something revolutionary.  Why not actually measure an individual’s potential on observed performance rather than an ancient paper trail that you were not there to record?

-CJ Cheetham

5 thoughts on “Credentialism – It’s Ruining Your Team”

  1. You leave no stone unturned here, another shot across the bow! You provide a good context and get to the heart of the matter. The matter you describe here is justification. Those in leadership positions can always turn to a warm and fuzzy spreadsheet which can later be used as a scapegoat. It seems that our human nature is to avoid blame whenever possible. In this case, blame could be placed on them for assigning a candidate a leadership position only for it to turn out badly. However, I think credentials are a valid source of information that should help GUIDE decision making, not make the decisions for us. Bill Cowher was an MVP and team captain in college!


  2. Chris, you know my views on this subject. What’s more frightening is that many people I work with at the Potomac sewage treatment plant are either so used to the putrid smell that it doesn’t bother them or they’ve liked the fragrance all along. Regardless, their cognitive dissonance is so acute that they will dismiss your comments out of hand as the rantings of the bitter and jealous.


      1. And just because someone is bitter and/or jealous, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong.


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