In the military, our goal is to produce leaders for America. Not academics, not test takers, not “hoop jumpers”, but leaders.
The USAF Officer Training School (OTS) and Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) comprise two of the three “sources of commissioning” (SOCs) for the USAF; our responsibility is three-fold. We first must recognize the global landscape is rapidly changing. We must remain nimble and innovative to anticipate, posture, and adjust, in order to secondly recruit the best and brightest sons and daughters of America, and thirdly to engage them in a focused and intentional leadership training program to ensure our young leaders are able and equipped to lead our country as we march toward the 22nd Century.
We are then thrusting these young leaders into a world that is:
Volatile: change will happen rapidly and on a large scale
Uncertain: the future cannot be predicted with any precision
Complex: challenges are complicated by many interrelated factors and there are few single causes or solutions
Ambiguous: there is little clarity on what events mean and what effect they may have
As we survey the next few decades, it becomes clear we need dynamic leaders that can understand and thrive in the uncertain and unstable environment. The future demands leaders that are intelligent, adaptable, flexible, and resilient with varied skill sets. Can we get there basing 66% of our entrance requirements on standardized testing and grade point average or is time for a change?
William Deresiewicz, in his now famous piece, “Solitude and Leadership” notes…Leadership is about more than being successful.
“Does being a leader … just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even excellence have to be different things; otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. .. what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, ‘excellent sheep.’ I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever.”
Dr. Tim Elmore also notes… “Far too often, we’ve focused on predictors such as Grade Point Average or SAT scores. We figure if a kid is smart—they’ll stay in school and continue to be engaged in class. It made sense to us. Today we’re realizing those are not the most significant categories to measure.
Are these test takers the ones we want leading the American military in the world we mention above?
There is a good bit of recent data that dispels standardized testing…be it SAT, ACT, or AFOQT (Air Force Officer’s Qualifying Test) as the end all answer to recruiting the nation’s best. Google recently learned that having a strong sense of mission is far more important than SAT scores
The New York Times reports that major companies such as Google, have determined that the traditional metrics, such as SAT tests, are not reliable indicators of future job performance.
In fact, recent research shows that the quality of the supervisor (leader) may be more important than the experience and individual attributes of the workers themselves. This is further backed up in Gallup’s recent poll of disengaged workers, which noted up to 70% of the American work force are disengaged at work due to a lack of creditable leadership…and this is costing corporate America $450-$550 billion a year—imagine the strategic impacts this finding has in the military?
Prasad Setty, Google’s vice president for people analytics, told The New York Times that they’ve found that those numbers [GPA and SATs] alone didn’t lead to success at the company, and “are no longer used as important hiring criteria.” According to their data, the most innovative and happy workers feel like they have autonomy and a strong sense of mission, so Google looks for more than just the best grades and test scores. There is a contrary move afoot in the USAF to rely more heavily on SATs, AFOQTs, and GPA… taking the Air Force in the opposite direction of where corporate America is going.
GPAs don’t predict anything about who is going to be a successful employee. “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand- new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation,”
“After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different,” he said. “You’re also fundamentally a different person. You learn and grow, you think about things differently. Another reason is that I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained; they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.” It would seem the skills Google is looking for would baud well for America’s military leaders as well.
And though Google was an early pioneer, more and more companies are starting to join this trend. Google’s use of data is so powerful that it was able to refute the bias of the company’s founders towards those with an elite educational background that mirrored theirs — that is, top university grads with high GPAs — and it actually resulted in changed organizational behavior.
Google’s findings have a strong congruence with bestselling author Dan Pink’s work, which the source of human motivation and our best work comes from the drive towards autonomy, mastery and purpose. This can clash with high-prestige and credentialed individuals who are driven by external recognition and rewards, not curiosity and craft.
What you might end up with are people who can follow the rules, but not necessarily those who are the leaders and warriors America desires in combat.
So the military, known for its leadership, is falling further and further behind corporate leadership selection as we rely on SATs, AFOQT, and GPA…and increasingly, corporate management, hiring, and promotions are going to be more focused on Big Data rather than people’s opinions and other measures, like academic records and SAT scores.
The USAF’s solution—we need to partner with industry and fight the crisis, complexity, and confusion by communicating and collaborating with corporate leaders and understand creative thinking will rule the 21st Century.
Q. How is Big Data being used more in the leadership and management field?
A. I think there’s been a fairly recent confluence of the ability to crunch lots of data at fairly low cost, venture capital investments that support new businesses in this field, and changes in what people expect. Leadership is a perennially difficult, immeasurable problem, so suddenly people are saying, “Maybe I can measure some piece of it.”
Part of the challenge with leadership is that it’s very driven by gut instinct in most cases — and even worse; everyone thinks they’re really good at it. The reality is that very few people are.
Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring. We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess.
Behavioral interviewing also works — where you’re not giving someone a hypothetical, but you’re starting with a question like, “Give me an example of a time when you solved an analytically difficult problem.” The interesting thing about the behavioral interview is that when you ask somebody to speak to their own experience, and you drill into that, you get two kinds of information. One is you get to see how they actually interacted in a real-world situation, and the valuable “meta” information you get about the candidate is a sense of what they consider to be difficult.
On the leadership side, we’ve found that leadership is a more ambiguous and amorphous set of characteristics than the work we did on the attributes of good management, which are more of a checklist and actionable.
We found that, for leaders, it’s important that people know you are consistent and fair in how you think about making decisions and that there’s an element of predictability. If a leader is consistent, people on their teams experience tremendous freedom, because then they know that within certain parameters, they can do whatever they want. If your manager is all over the place, you’re never going to know what you can do, and you’re going to experience it as very restrictive.
When you start doing studies in these areas, Big Data — when applied to leadership — has tremendous potential to uncover the 10 universal things we should all be doing. But there are also things that are specifically true only about your organization, and the people you have and the unique situation you’re in at that point in time. I think this will be a constraint to how big the data can get because it will always require an element of human insight.
In terms of leadership, success is very dependent on the context. What works at Google or G.E. or Goldman Sachs is not going to be the right answer for everyone. I don’t think you’ll ever replace human judgment and human inspiration and creativity because, at the end of the day, you need to be asking questions like, O.K., the system says this. Is this really what we want to do? Is that the right thing?