Study highlights differences between military, civilian leaders

A recent study on leadership and management found significant differences between the military services and the nonservice agencies within the Defense Department.

The study, conducted by researchers at Princeton University, found that while senior officials at the military services received higher evaluations from employees than their nonservice counterparts in the areas of leadership and work climate, they did not score as well on management.

"These findings highlight the profession-bureaucracy tradeoff within the Defense Department," the study said. "The military services focus on the cultivation of leaders while civilian agency leaders focus on organizational performance."

The study was based on data from the Office of Personnel Management's 2002 and 2004 surveys of the federal workforce. They captured the perspectives of employees at 58 agencies within the Defense Department, though not all of the agencies were included both years.

From 3 percent to 9 percent more employees in the Army, Navy and Air Force reported high levels of respect for their senior leaders than did employees at the nonservice agencies, the study found. Service members also were between 1 percent and 7 percent more likely to report that their leaders generated high levels of motivation and commitment.

Between 5.5 percent and 8 percent more employees in the military services indicated that they would recommend their organization as a good place to work.

The findings were more varied in the area of management, but there was no overarching pattern of the services rating better than the nonservice agencies.

The services regularly rotate their staff members through different positions, giving them the chance to enhance leadership skills, the researchers noted. This practice is less common in the civilian agencies, under the theory that it may hurt management of specific programs, the researchers said.

The study found that for each additional year managers had served in a specific position, their employees were 2.5 percent to 5 percent more likely to report that they reviewed progress toward organizational goals, and 1.5 percent to 3 percent more likely to report that their organization had the knowledge and skills necessary to accomplish the goals.

John Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service in Washington, said there should be a middle ground between job rotation and tenure.

"It has to be tempered with the fact that you don't want workers to be vagabonds," he said. "You want some rotation but you also want to take advantage of what they're learning on a leadership level and give them a chance to stay in an organization long enough to mature as managers."

Additionally, the study found that across the Defense Department, executives with higher levels of education and private sector management experience scored five to 10 points better on all survey questions.

With significant changes in the workforce expected in the next five to 10 years as large numbers of employees retire, government recruiters seeking to fill senior positions should begin to look more expansively at experience, whether inside or outside of public service, Palguta said.

He added it is unlikely that the leadership and management assessment of Defense would change much based on the results of the 2006 OPM workforce survey. But, he said, it would "be very interesting to see what the new numbers are."

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