Researchers Helping Army Identify Creativity in Leaders

Cynthia Matthew, visiting scholar in psychology, and Steven Stemler, assistant professor of psychology, are developing tools which may identify creative and effective leaders.
Posted 08/07/07
The U.S. Army is looking for a few creative leaders, and two Wesleyan researches are helping in the search.

Steven Stemler, assistant professor of psychology, and Cynthia Matthew, visiting scholar in psychology, are creating a basic psychological research tool that will help the Army Research Institute (ARI) to identify individuals who possess “mental flexibility,” a trait which Army officials believe is important to more creative and effective leadership.

“It might seem odd that an organization that is so inherently and purposely rigid in its structure would value creativity,” Matthew says. “But the circumstances leaders often find themselves in require a high degree of mental flexibility. “

Stemler adds, “In truth, some of the most creative people in the world have worked within the context of some well-defined constraints.” Stemler points to great athletes, such as Michael Jordan, who must adhere to rules of the game, entrepreneurs who must conform to the limits of their start-up capital and the law, and even many artists from past centuries who were forced to work within constraints set by patrons or the medium.

But it’s just not enough to be creative, at least not for the needs of the Army or those of most organizations with well-defined structures and hierarchies. According to Stemler and Matthew, for creativity to manifest itself in a real-world performance, the individual must also have mental flexibility, a personality open to experience, and strong motivation.

“Mental flexibility is the ability to respond to change with novel and useful strategies,” Matthew says. “Creativity and adaptability certainly figure into this, as well as being able to take abstract ideas and transform them into practical solutions.”

Stemler and Matthew have designed a study that measures mental flexibility within the context of individuals’ pattern recognition ability. The intent is to provide the Army with possible predictor of the ability to think flexibly and creatively.

“A previous ARI study showed that there are strong, consistent associations between individuals with strong pattern recognition abilities and strong mental flexibility,” Matthew says. “This study is designed to provide methods for reliably identifying pattern recognition ability in both abstract tasks as well as more practical social situations.”

“Some people are good at pattern recognition, but are not flexible or creative in finding new solutions,” Stemler says. “Others do well at the mental flexibility part but are not great at pattern recognition. We want to find out if we can identify those who excel at both.”

Another aspect of the study that links pattern recognition directly to leadership are measures designed to look at these abilities within the context of social networking skills, which has potential implications for leader development.

“If a person comes up with an innovative solution and wants to implement it in a strict hierarchical structure like the military, he or she will have to be able to identify who can help them do this within the informal networks that exist in all organizations, both above and below them in the chain of command,” Matthew says. “Otherwise, executing the solution will be difficult, if not impossible.”

Stemler and Matthew are being supported by grant of $104,797 for the 1-year study by the ARI. The researchers are being aided by Max Wu ’08, and Ellen Dinsmore ‘08, who are helping to develop some tests and instruments for the study.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that much of basic psychological research done in the U.S. since the end of World War II has been initiated and funded by the Army Research Institute,” Matthew says. “They really are responsible for some tremendous, ground-breaking work.”

Since this is basic research Stemler and Matthew do not need to test Army officers for the study. Instead, undergraduate volunteers from several participating New England colleges and universities will be recruited this fall. Stemler and Matthew will survey between 250 and 300 participants, paying them $30 for a single 30-hour testing session. There will also be classroom-level participation and include professors performing assessments.

Undergraduate institutions and students who are interested in participating in the study may contact Stemler at or Matthew at

By David Pesci, director of Media Relations. Photo by Olivia Drake.