February 2, 2010

Psychology of Leadership from the Battlefield to the Boardroom

Questions for Col. Tom Kolditz, PhD

Reporters/editors/producers note: The following feature was produced by the American Psychological Association. Feel free to use it in its entirety or in part; we only request that you credit APA as the source. We also have a photograph of the researcher available to reprint, as well as other experts on this topic.

tom-kolditz Col. Tom Kolditz, PhD, is a social psychologist, soldier and skydiving instructor. As a professor, APA fellow and chairman of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point, Col. Kolditz studies human behavior and leadership in dangerous and extreme contexts. He has examined research conducted in Iraq during active combat operations and applies it to the challenges of leadership in business and daily living.

APA: Why study people in dangerous environments, such as battlefields or natural disasters?

Kolditz: It’s simply good science. Scientific evidence is limited to the context in which it’s gathered, and most of our social science is based on evidence accrued in mundane or even controlled settings, in the absence of excitement, fear and awareness of one’s eventual death. While it is reasonable to assume these same results could happen in real world settings, it is not reasonable to assume that theories don’t require retesting in dangerous environments to make sure the results are similar and not gotten by chance. Extreme contexts demand the replication and extension of scientific work, and this is not a new idea or limited to social psychology.

Also, it’s a moral responsibility. The number of law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, military personnel, humanitarian aid workers and others working under conditions of physical risk exceeds 5 million people in the United States and 40 million worldwide. We recently watched in horror as the nation of Haiti was plunged into extreme circumstances. All these people deserve social science tailored to the conditions in which they live and work, whether voluntarily as public servants or as victims of natural or man-made disasters. For example, data gathered in combat in Iraq by social psychologist Patrick Sweeney both advanced our understanding of trust formation and has provided the evidentiary basis for leadership education and training to many military, law enforcement and business leadership programs.

APA: How is the information gathered in deadly environments useful in business and other contexts?

Kolditz: Crisis leadership has always been important in business, and even more so given our recent and ongoing economic challenges. In the past, business schools have taught crisis leadership through case studies of business leaders who fought their way out of some extraordinary management challenge. A different, more effective way of understanding how to lead in crisis is to study those who routinely work in extremely risky environments—ground combat leaders, extreme sport coaches, firefighters and others. Their crisis leadership skills are polished, well-developed and effective. All of us, regardless of occupation, can learn a lot about leadership from crisis professionals. For example, research with the West Point parachute team revealed low levels of motivating behavior among highly experienced parachute team leaders, compared to high levels of motivating behavior among team captains of more routine, safer sports. In-depth analysis revealed that dangerous contexts inherently motivated those participating, requiring calming, rather than motivating, leader behaviors. Such insights have led to businesses training middle management in how to regulate employees’ emotions relative to the situation, rather than simply providing training in “how to motivate employees.”

APA: Can we apply your findings to fighting terrorism – specifically, guarding against acts of violence in airports and airplanes?

Kolditz: Yes. Terrorists use violence to manipulate our feelings of physical and psychological well-being in ways that harm our society—a social phenomenon. In my own work, I’ve defined in extremis contexts as circumstances where followers believe that leader behavior will influence their physical well-being or survival, so during terrorist events, there is direct application for the leadership lessons we’ve developed thus far. For example, research has revealed that in dangerous contexts, the levels of perceived competence required for trust development are higher than in ordinary, safe contexts. Security organizations are compelled to account for that in hiring and developing staff. Research has also suggested that compared to people who feel safe, people in fear for their lives are more susceptible to charismatic, persuasive messages than rational or emotional appeals. Anyone communicating during or after a terrorist event can benefit from such knowledge.

APA: Are military leadership skills similar across countries? What role does culture play?

Kolditz: No, leadership skills vary dramatically in the militaries of other countries and cultures. In the United States, we’re fortunate to have an all-volunteer military, transformed since the 1980s into a highly educated, well-trained, well-equipped professional force focused on excellence in leadership. As a result, most major U.S. businesses have teams of human resource professionals whose primary function is to directly recruit leaders from our military, especially service academies. Amazingly, in 2009, a service academy, West Point, was named the top college in the United States by Forbes Magazine. In contrast, most other countries use some form of conscription or national service, put much less emphasis on education and leader development, and have much less experience with conflict. The U.S. training teams that are developing the Iraqi police and military forces have to understand how people influence each other in Iraqi culture and teach culturally appropriate principles, rather than attempting to transplant leadership approaches typical of the United States. Five years ago in Afghanistan, professors from West Point helped develop the curriculum and design of the National Military Academy of Afghanistan. The focus was not only on academic curriculum and leadership skills, but on developing a leader identity in graduates so that the Afghan military would be better led.

APA: How do the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan uniquely aid psychologists and other researchers who study leadership?

Kolditz: The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been, and continue to be, tragic in their human cost, notwithstanding the longer-term promise of stability in the Middle East and beyond. But there are some interesting phenomena for those who study leadership. The unique character of insurgent warfare means small unit leaders, lieutenants and captains, are granted tremendous autonomy in the execution of their missions. This freedom to operate has led to amazing levels of adaptability developed in young leaders in hostile environments. These conflicts are teaching us what the essence of leadership is, and can be, across cultures.

APA: Is leadership in dangerous contexts a valid area of study that is scientifically testable?

Kolditz: It’s unquestionably valid and testable. What’s key is how to define dangerous contexts. It’s not productive to attempt to measure the physical characteristics or outcome probabilities associated with an environment; danger is far too subjective a concept. In my own work, I define leadership in dangerous contexts as giving purpose, motivation and direction to people where there is imminent physical risk, and where followers believe that leader behavior will impact their physical well-being or survival. Follower beliefs are empirically measurable and researchers frequently measure beliefs. Researchers do not, however, routinely measure beliefs where there is significant physical risk to themselves or the subjects of interest. Ethical considerations prevent researchers from creating such conditions, but there are opportunities to collect data where risk is already occurring. Studies following Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, for example, provided data being published now in our journals. In my own work, I have gathered information in active combat zones and in parachute training programs, and from leaders who routinely work in such places.

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