Adaptive leadership in the military: Team leaders' contribution to their soldiers’ adaptability

K. van Dam

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractAcademic


    Adaptive leadership in the military: Team leaders’ contribution to their soldiers’ adaptability Karen van Dam (Open University NL;, Ninka Lenssen (Tilburg University) & Walter van Bijlevelt (Royal Netherlands Army) BackgroundWorker adaptability is of utmost importance in work situations that are changing, uncertain, ambiguous and new. Nowadays this is current for many organizations dealing with global competition, rapid technological developments, restructuring and increased diversity in cultural backgrounds. However, this is especially relevant for military teams who go on peacekeeping, humanitarian or other kinds of military operations, and thus work under unpredictable and possibly threatening conditions, often in unfamiliar cultures (Pulakos ea, 2000). The shifts in tactics and approaches to deal with uncertainty and threats make the adaptability of military teams an absolute necessity to successfully complete the mission (Mueller-Hanson ea, 2005). In these complex situations, the ability of the small team leaders to enhance their team’s adaptability may affect both tactical and strategic outcomes (Tucker ea, 2009). Study objectives and theoretical frameworkWhile research on workers’ adaptability is growing (Jundt ea, 2015), we still know little about the role of leaders for their team members’ adaptability (Griffin ea, 2010; Tucker ea, 2009). Therefore, the goal of this study was to establish the relationships of military team leader characteristics with their soldiers’ adaptability. Based on the literature and extensive discussions with military experts, three broad collections of leader characteristics were included that were expected to relate to team member adaptability. First, based on Bandura’s (1977) Social Learning Theory, a modeling process was expected where team members are more adaptable if their leader is adaptable (Bartone ea, 2009). Second, specific leader behaviors (Tucker ea, 2009) might encourage team members to become adaptive, i.e. explicitly stimulating adaptiveness and creative thinking, error management, and communicating commanders’ intent. Third, an inspirational leadership style (Bass ea, 2003) was expected to relate to more leader adaptability and more adaptability encouraging behavior, and in the end to team member’ adaptability. Van Dam’s (2013) multi-dimensional model for adaptability was chosen as a theoretical framework.MethodData were obtained from 178 soldiers and 33 team leaders (. Combat experience was relatively high; 64% of the soldiers and 97% of the team leaders had served in e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan and/or Bosnia. Validated scales (α = .86-.92) were used for inspirational leadership (Den Hartog ea., 1997), adaptability (Van Dam, 2018), error management (Van Dyck ea, 2005). For stimulating adaptiveness, stimulating creative thinking, and communicating commanders’ intent, new scale were developed (α = .80-.93). Structural equation modeling with ML estimation was used to test the research model.ResultsThe findings indicated that leaders and team members agreed very little on the leader characteristics. It seemed that leaders were rather positive of their own quality. Owing to this self-report bias, the leaders’ self-ratings of their characteristics had little predictive power for team members’ adaptability. Therefore, in the following, only the team member data are used to test the model. The SEM analysis showed sufficient fit (2/df = 2.74, p = .01; TLI = .90; CFI = .93; RMSEA = .08). Leaders with an inspirational leadership style showed more leader adaptability (β = .70, p < 001) and more encouraging behaviors (β = .76, p < 001). Leader adaptability (β = .26, p < 001) and leader behavior (β = .39, p < 001) predicted team member adaptability. DiscussionWhile the literature stresses the importance of leadership for team member adaptability (Griffin ea, 2010; Pulakos ea, 2005; Tucker ea, 2009), research focusing on this topic is still scarce. Our study showed that team members’ adaptability could indeed be predicted by leader characteristics, i.e. inspirational leadership, leader adaptability and specific leader behaviors such as that stimulating adaptive and creative behavior. Yet, several study limitations should be taken into account: our specific research setting; cross-sectional data; not using MLA while for nested data. Still, the findings suggest that leader characteristics can be relevant for team adaptability within a very special work context, the military. More studies (and analyses) are needed. ReferencesBandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Oxford, UK: Prentice-Hall. Bartone, P.T., Barry, C.L., & Armstrong, R.E. (2009). To build resilience: Leader influence on mental hardiness. Defense Horizons, 69, 1-8.Bass, B.M., Avolio, B.J., Jung, D.I., & Berson, Y. (2003). Predicting team performance by assessing transformational and transactional leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 207-217.Den Hartog, D.N., Van Muijen, J.J., & Koopman, P.L. (1997). Transactional versus transformational leadership: An analysis of the MLQ. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 70, 1934. Griffin, M.A., Parker S.K., & Mason C. (2010). Leader vision and the development of adaptive and proactive performance: A longitudinal study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 174–182. Jundt, D.K., Shoss, M.K., & Huang, J.L. (2015). Individual adaptive performance in organizations: A review. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 36, 53–71. Mueller-Hanson, R.A., White, S.S., Dorsey, D.W., & Pulakos, E.D. (2005). Training adaptable leaders: Lessons from research and practice. Alexandria, VA: US Army Research Institute, Report No. 1844.Pulakos, E.D., Arad, S., Donovan, M.A., & Plamondon, K.E. (2000). Adaptability in the workplace: Development of a taxonomy of adaptive performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 612-624. Pulakos, E.D., Dorsey, D.W., & Mueller-Hanson, R.A. (2005, April). PDRIs Adaptability Research Program.. Paper presented at the 20th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Los Angeles, CA. Tucker, J.S., & Gunther, K.M. (2009). The application of a model of adaptive performance to army leader behaviors. Military Psychology, 21, 315-333. Van Dam, K. (2013). Employee adaptability to change at work: A multidimensional, resource-based framework. In S. Oreg, A. Michel, & R.T. By (Eds.), The psychology of organizational change: Viewing change from the employee’s perspective (pp. 123-142). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Van Dam, K. (2018). The adaptability scale: Construction, reliability, and initial validity evidence. Manuscript submitted for publication. Van Dyck, C., Baer, M., Frese, M., & Sonnentag, S. (2005). Organizational error management culture and its impact on performance: a two-study implication. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 1228-1240.


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