A student at Missouri University of Science and Technology has devised a tool for early detection of “leader derailment” – that is the tendency for certain individuals on leadership career paths to suddenly and unexpectedly suffer professional failure.
“This phenomenon has been widely investigated in the private sector,” says Angela Hundt, a senior in history at Missouri S&T. “I’m looking at it from the military perspective, where the stakes often involve national security and subordinates’ safety and morale.”
Hundt joined the Air Force ROTC at Missouri S&T when she was a freshman. Now wing commander, she recruited 21 other AFROTC cadets as voluntary research subjects. She was supervised by Dr. Jim Martin, associate professor of psychological sciences at S&T.
With help from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Hundt and Martin developed a questionnaire that may help predict leadership potential. They created a 34-item Leadership Potential Questionnaire, which is intended to tap into five behavioral categories – communication, personal motivation, professionalism, team-building and problem-solving. These behaviors were shown to be successfully exhibited by high-performing West Point cadets.
Four questionnaires were completed for each of the cadets evaluated — by the cadet, his or her supervisor, and two peers. This multisource feedback was used to investigate the relationships between personality disorders and self-versus-other perceptions of leadership potential. Hundt says the questionnaire could be used to help the Armed Forces identify potential problem officers early on, and may help identify candidates for promotion.
The cadets themselves also completed the Hogan Developmental Survey (HDS) to measure 11 personality traits related to Axis II personality disorders (borderline, paranoid, avoidant, schizoid, passive-aggressive, narcissistic, antisocial, histrionic, schizotypal, obsessive compulsive and dependent), and the Wonderlic Personnel Test to measure their cognitive ability.
When the results were tallied, Hundt and Martin found that the cadets tended to rate themselves higher in leadership potential than their supervisors and peers did, and their peers evaluated them more critically than their supervisors. She says this was not surprising – although the cadets form close bonds, they are also very competitive with each other.
Of the four questionnaire results, the supervisors’ ratings of the cadets’ leadership potential most closely correlated to the personality traits determined by the HDS. Hundt says this might be because our personality short-comings may be more obvious to others than to ourselves.
Hundt says several of the personality traits cadets self identified might appear to be positive early on in their careers, but could cause “leader derailment” later on. “Bold” cadets could become narcissistic in their attempt to control every situation, without input from others. “Diligent,” perfectionist or meticulous behaviors might help cadets learn and follow the rules initially, but may not always be appropriate behavior for supervisors. And “imaginative” traits, or acting in creative, odd or unusual ways, may be helpful when cadets are asked to come up with new solutions to a problem, but not if the solution requires excess time and energy when a simple one would suffice.
Plans are in the works to administer the measures to Army cadets on Missouri S&T’s campus. “The project has a lot of potential for further analysis,” says Hundt.