Head Strong

How Psychology is Revolutionizing War

Psychology and the Study of Leadership

General Eisenhower, psychology, and leader development at West Point.

I have the privilege to be a senior faculty member of West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.  In terms of its disciplinary focus, the department is more diverse than most, with academic degrees offered in five different programs:  Engineering psychology, leadership, management, psychology, and sociology.  We enjoy the benefits of highly intelligent and motivated students and a talented and cohesive faculty team.  Perhaps due in part to the academic diversity of our department, we also have plenty of opportunities to engage in multidisciplinary teaching and scholarship.  I can’t imagine being anywhere else.  But being an experimental psychologist in a department with a significant focus on leadership has given me pause for thought and reflection on that topic.

Nationally, very few academic departments offer undergraduate degree programs in leadership. Of course leadership, as you may suspect, is a topic of utmost interest to the military.  Indeed, you can trace the establishment of the study of psychology at West Point to none other than General Dwight D. Eisenhower.  In a January 2, 1946 letter to General Maxwell Taylor, West Point’s Superintendent, General Eisenhower encouraged Taylor to build the study of psychology into West Point’s curriculum.  Eisenhower felt that many of the leadership failures he had observed in the army’s officer corps during World War II were the result of his officers’ lack of education and understanding about psychology.  Eisenhower wrote to Taylor “A feature I would very much like to see included in the curriculum is a course in practical or applied psychology . . . . . I think that both theoretical and practical instruction along this line could, at the very least, awaken the majority of cadets to the necessity of handling human problems on a human basis and do much to improve leadership and personnel handling in the Army at large.”  My department traces its origin to this very letter, although I doubt Eisenhower could have ever imagined the scope and breadth of today’s academic department.

Given the universal importance of leadership, I find it interesting how little attention the topic gets in psychology.  I have five different introductory psychology texts in my office, and leadership is not listed in the subject index of even one.  Very few undergraduate psychology programs offer a course in leadership.  It is covered in industrial/organizational psychology courses, at least to some extent, but it does not surface as a major area of focus.  And the few academic programs in leadership that do exist reside in business or management schools for the most part.

 To be honest, I have never been very impressed with the scientific rigor of leadership research or teaching.  When I first arrived at West Point, I heard a lot of spirited discussion about leadership but found little substance.  As an informal “experiment,” I asked several colleagues to define leadership.  There was no agreement on the definition.  Nor could I extract much consensus on how to best go about studying the phenomenon.  I was educated as an experimental psychologist, one who values sound theory, sophisticated research methods, and operational definitions.  As such, I was appalled at the lack of scientific study of leadership.

 If a construct is not subject to a common definition – operational or otherwise – it seems to be outside the domain of science. The very name of our department - behavioral sciences and leadership – almost implies that the latter is outside the domain of scientific study.  Still, having experienced both effective and ineffective leaders, there seems to be merit in the formal study of leadership.  And, in the military, lives may hang in the balance on the competence of leaders.  In short, leadership matters, but how are we to advance our understanding of it?

Despite these reservations, I believe psychology is the natural home for the formal study of leadership.  Leadership is a form of interpersonal behavior and involves certain individuals influencing and directing the behaviors, attitudes, and thoughts of others.  The theoretical models and research methods of social psychology seem especially well suited for the scientific study of leadership.  Bringing psychological science to bear on leadership may result in a more coherent and empirically based understanding of the phenomenon.  I am not dismissing existing research in this area.  To be sure, there is body of scholarship on the topic.  But it concerns me that this knowledge has not found its way to more mainstream psychology, and that its study has come to be claimed, in no small measure, by academic disciplines outside of psychology.

In the end, I think perhaps Eisenhower had it right.  The core knowledge of psychology, to include personality, stress, resilience, learning and memory, and social behavior, are the things leaders need to know in order to lead effectively.  Maybe leadership per se is not especially amenable to rigorous scientific study.  But forming an evidence-based, systematic understanding of the biological, psychological, and social determinants of leader behavior is achievable.  Such an approach may lead to significant advances in our understanding of both the leader and those they lead.

Note:  The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Michael D. Matthews, Ph.D., is Professor of Engineering Psychology at the United States Military Academy and author of Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War.

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