In Brief

Platoons perform better during high-stress simulated combat when they have leaders who reward and build shared values among soldiers, according to a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 2). Platoons with more passive leaders don't perform as well in those situations, the study suggests.

The study--by Bruce J. Avolio, PhD, of University of Nebraska- Lincoln; Bernard M. Bass, PhD, of Binghamton University; Yair Berson, PhD, of Polytechnic University; and Doug I. Jung, PhD, of San Diego State University--evaluated the effects of leaders' styles on 72 light infantry platoons in the U.S. Army.

Specifically, they looked at how leaders' approaches predicted the units' strength, unity and performance.

A total of 1,594 soldiers rated their platoon leaders and sergeants on their transformational leadership--a style that builds identification for a mission. Soldiers evaluated the degree to which leaders made such statements as "talks about the importance of Army ethics and values" or "emphasizes the importance of having a collective sense of mission." The soldiers also rated their leaders' transactional contingent reward leadership, the degree to which they "reward us when we do what we are supposed to do."

Both leadership styles predicted platoon success in terms of cohesion in pulling together to get a job done and potency in solving difficult and unexpected problems, according to the study.

However, the platoons with passive leaders, who waited for problems to arise before correcting them, tended to have poorer cohesion and potency.

Researchers evaluated the platoons in 11 tactical mission exercises, including defense, movement to contact and attack. They had 126 expert military observers determine how well the platoons accomplished their missions. Then they examined the relationship between the platoons' performance and their leaders' styles, finding that leadership style one to two months prior predicted subsequent platoon performance.

One of the main responsibilities of leadership is to make sure a task gets done, notes Avolio, the Donald and Shirley Clifton Chair in Leadership at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"To lead is not to just get to point A to point B, but it's getting to point A and B while also developing people along the way," Avolio says. "That is the challenge the Army has--continuous development."

Avolio says both styles of leadership proved to be important during the recent war in Iraq.

"It wasn't just about winning the war, but it was also about transforming a country," Avolio explains. "It's a very difficult position--managing the hostilities of a war and managing communities. Leadership that is transformational is very much about that."