Air University Review, May-June 1976

Assessing the Assessment Center:
New Dimensions in Leadership

Major Peter Henderson

The mission of Air University is to prepare officers of all grades and specialties for command of, and staff duties within, all types of Air Force organizations.1 Implied in that mission statement is the requirement for strong Air Force leadership at all levels of staff and command. Air Force professional military education (PME) schools are devoting considerable talent and energy toward leadership education as each labors to fulfill its own specific requirements. The problem is that leaders and educators alike have been unable to agree on a specific interpretation of leadership. What makes a leader, how does one recognize leadership when it occurs, and how is leadership taught?

The USAF Chief of Staff, General David C. Jones, has said that leadership is a "nebulous quality" that turns failure into success.2 Although we can easily see what it is that occurs as a result of leadership, we still do not understand the nature of it. It would be difficult to find a topic more in need of clarification than leadership. In an article in Air University Review, General Ira C. Eaker commented that leadership is still a "critical factor for the military professional."3 General Eaker went on to enumerate his favorite qualities of leadership, heading the list with "courage."

All outstanding leaders seem to have their favorite leadership attributes. For General Jones, it is the ability to solve problems.4 Other leaders have named other attributes. Squadron Officer School (SOS), the Air Force's junior officer leadership school, actually publishes a list of attributes in one of its textbooks.5 Our concern with leadership in the world of professional military education is not a problem of naming attributes but one of limiting the description of leadership to a measurable or observable quantity that we can isolate and evaluate.

A relatively new idea for promoting development of leadership is known as the Assessment Center method, by which students go through a program of activities under the eye of expert faculty members. As a method of observation and evaluation of behavior, the Assessment Center can contribute to a better understanding of the nature of leadership; it can provide specific dimensions of leadership that can be observed in controlled conditions and used for improving leadership education in precommissioning programs and in professional military schools.

We are deluged with definitions and theories of leadership. The primary difficulty with many popular leadership theories is that they are based on either intuitive assumptions or attitudinal surveys. For example, the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid6 is taught as a viable theory of leadership and management behavior in most courses of leadership/management instruction. This theory is popular because it is logically constructed and leads one to believe that there is a "best" style of leadership behavior. It is also a favorite in the classroom environment because each student can "learn" his dominant style of behavior by means of a simple paper-and-pencil test.7

On the other hand, some leadership theorists totally reject the idea of classroom instruction in leadership. Dr. Fred E. Fiedler, who has conducted a great deal of this country's research on leadership states that no one has established any direct correlation between the amount of training a leader has had and the performance of the group he leads.8 However Dr. Fiedler's own theory, the Contingency Model of Leadership Effectiveness, is grounded in behavioral assumptions based on attitudinal surveys.9 These are examples of two of the more popular theories of leadership being used in leadership courses today. The point is that they are based on generalized statements which attempt to explain behavior and are not particularly useful in helping students develop their own leadership skills. Our Air Force students, for all their study of leadership theory, are still unclear as to their personal concepts of leadership and what they must do in any given situation to provide good leadership.

It is my opinion that educators have been looking in the wrong direction for assistance in leadership education within given fields. The Assessment Center, as a method of behavioral measurement and individual feedback, can provide the professional educator in any field with specific dimensions of leadership. This method can increase the instructor's ability to recognize individual acts of leadership in group situations and properly counsel individual students on their leadership skills. In the Assessment Center the emphasis is on observed behavior rather than theoretical abstraction. Before we analyze the method, let us examine its history.

How did the Assessment Center begin?

According to most sources, the Assessment Center was apparently first conceived by the Germans in 1911 for purposes of officer selection.10 It was also used by the Office of Strategic Services during World War II for selecting secret agents.11 The British Royal Army Selection Board continued to use a variation of this program after World War II in selecting young applicants for Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy. It is interesting to note that Squadron Officer School's famed Project X was originally designed as a copy of the British program.12 Since its beginning in 1951, the SOS Project X has become the focal point for that school's leadership program because of the emphasis on situational and observable leadership behavior in a problem-solving environment. That is the legacy of the Assessment Center method.

Sometime after the start of Project X, representatives from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, borrowed the plan from SOS and designed a leadership "confidence" course of their own. That course continues to be a valuable part of infantry basic training, and similar courses are being established at other Army schools.13 The Assessment Center method is a tried and proven way of evaluating leadership behavior in an outdoor problem-solving course.

In this outdoor form, however, it is not fully suited to the needs of PME, the major command leadership academies, or the precommissioning programs for developing new ways of instructing in leadership behavior throughout the full spectrum of Air Force management activities. It is in the civilian sector that the Assessment Center method has made the largest contribution.

American Telephone and Telegraph, in looking for new management development and training processes, took the lead 15 years ago and attempted to identify the variables related to success by applying the Assessment Center ideas.14 Today, AT&T subsidiaries are operating some fifty Assessment Centers nationwide. They are processing approximately 10,000 personnel annually, identifying potential candidates among people eligible for first-line management positions.15 The Assessment Center method is also being applied by IBM, General Electric, and J. C. Penney, as well as many state and federal agencies, to help in the selection of first-line supervisors and top Civil Service candidates.16

For a while the only full-time Assessment Center operated by the U.S. Air Force was located at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Designed specifically for the assessment of candidates for civilian positions (GS 12-14) in the Aeronautical Systems Division, the center was operated on a trial basis January through June, 1974. It was so successful in fulfilling its objectives of identification and development of high-potential managers that it is now refunded on an annual basis.17

The U.S. Army operated a temporary Assessment Center at Fort Benning. The center's mission was quite extensive: to test the assessment concept as a precommissioning screening device and as a leadership career development technique, and to determine whether the concept was valid for Army-wide use.18 An interesting fallout from this research project was the development of composite profiles of junior officers and NCO's based on the accumulated behavioral data. This composite provided the school with valuable information on the capabilities and anticipated needs of its future students.19 The program was discontinued in 1974 for lack of funds, but the data are still being researched by the Army Research Institute.20

Most recently, Squadron Officer School re-examined the Assessment Center method. Based on the favorable results obtained by the project at Wright-Patterson, SOS initiated a pilot program in 1975. They have since added the Assessment Center method to their leadership curriculum as another means of identifying and developing those leadership behaviors and skills most needed by junior officers in their respective staff and squadron duties A full examination of their work should be made by any military educational institution seeking to upgrade its leadership education curriculum.

What is the Assessment Center method?

The Assessment Center is a method of defining, observing, and measuring behavior. The Assessment Center method uses system of actual work-related problems and situations in which the behavior of individuals can be observed and objectively assessed. The students participate these situations under the watchful eye the assessors, who are specially train for this activity and who have themselves undergone assessment. The behavior the student is recorded and later classified in accordance with specifically tailored "dimensions" or skills. These dimensions are the actual leadership skills that have been identified as essential qualities for the position being considered, or for the particular types of duties the student w be assigned in future Air Force assignments.21

The purpose of the Assessment Center, as used by most civilian corporations, is to evaluate the specific skills, or dimensions, of the candidates in order to determine their fitness for promotion to a particularly important position. It is designed as a supplement to aid managers in making objective and rational decisions about the promotions of their people.22 As will be fully explained later in this article, however, the Assessment Center's value to Air Force leadership education lies in its use as a developmental system rather than as a placement system.

The typical Assessment Center program consists of a one-week operation: 2 to 3 days for the observation of exercises 3 to 4 days for the assessment and resolution process. Specially trained observers are selected from management positions similar to the positions for which the candidates are being considered. The candidates are placed into six--man groups, which participate in a series of standardized exercises such as management games, unstructured and structured group discussion scenarios, in-basket tests, one-on-one interviews, briefings, speeches, and written problem-solving exercises.23 Not all the exercises are conducted with the six-man groups, but all are designed to bring out some dimensions of management or leadership behavior. Most of the exercises require intense group interaction, since management and leadership require getting work done through people.24 Most of the exercises are realistic role-playing scenarios in which each participant has a task, and he can do as much or as little with his role as he wants.

There are typically three assessors observing each six-man scenario, although that ratio can vary according to the needs of the educational situation. Each assessor watches only two of the participants, recording their behavior as the problem situation moves toward resolution. The assessors eventually observe all the candidates over the full period of time and later meet to compare notes, discuss behaviors, and prepare their evaluations. During the "assessment phase," the assessors must catalog their observations in terms of the dimensions being measured. They can later evaluate each participant's leadership ability based on the number and quality of the leadership dimensions he displayed.

What are the dimensions?

The behavioral dimensions, or skills, are the backbone of the Assessment Center method. The dimensions provide the method with its inherent flexibility and adaptability. A dimension is a capability, talent, or skill area that encompasses specific behaviors. These behaviors are examples of abilities in the particular dimension, and they can easily be grouped and reliably classified in those particular dimensions. The dimensions are not all-inclusive; rather they are common areas concern as agreed upon by experts in particular area. The dimensions of leadership valued in the chaplain's area of activity, for example, might not be the same as those valued in the personnel or comptroller fields. The dimensions valued in precommissioning education will likewise be different from those valued in the Air War College environment, even if only in degree and intensity.

The following dimensions are a few of those used by the Aeronautical Systems Division in its Assessment Center at Wright-Patterson: energy, forcefulness, flexibility, stress tolerance, risk taking, originality, and problem solving.25 These specific dimensions were not derived from arbitrary or academically intuitive sources; instead they were obtained by exhaustive surveys of managers who occupied the positions of leadership for which the Assessment Center was assessing candidates.

There are many more dimensions recommended by the commercial consultant firms that develop Assessment Center programs for industry. Primarily, the dimensions are job-performance related. The lists provided are only suggestions for developing a set of dimensions peculiar to the using activity. The dimensions used by any institution should be obtained through as many ways as possible, including surveys of professional literature, job analyses, interviews, and questionnaires.

All these dimensions are related to leadership behavior because they specifically relate to task accomplishment through people. One of the biggest problems in the area of leadership training has been an inability to see the forest for the trees. Many leadership schools are trying to develop a cognitive understanding of leadership, when the real need is to teach and develop the skills or dimensions of leadership. The Assessment Center, used in the developmental manner, facilitates that instruction by creating situations in which the specific skills, or dimensions, can be observed, evaluated, and used for the leadership development of the student.

How good is the Assessment Center?

A review of all validity studies since 1956 concerning Assessment Center methods reveals that the assessments were valid and were consistently correlated with several criteria. Predictive accuracy was highest for job potential, followed by progress, and then job performance. The Assessment Center was more efficient than traditional methods of evaluation, such as paper-and-pencil tests.26 The popularity of the Assessment Center method results from its great flexibility in adaptation to different jobs and job levels and inherent potential for higher degrees of content validity (job relatedness).27 It has endless implications for training, as a tool for planning training needs, as a career-planning vehicle, and as a learning experience per se.28

The Assessment Center at the U.S. Army Infantry School was highly rated by school officials. In a final report, one official stated that the center presented "excellent hands-on performance-oriented leadership training"; it was also reported that students called the experience the "best leadership training they had ever received."29

How does the Assessment Center method 
apply to Air Force schools?

As mentioned earlier, the original purpose of the Assessment Center method was personnel placement or promotion evaluation. Whereas industry primarily uses the Assessment Center method for job placement purposes, the Air Force should use it for the leadership development and education of the professional officer.

Each school using the Assessment Center method should tailor the method to its own needs based on the curriculum objectives and length of the course. Preparation should include having key faculty members attend an active Assessment Center to observe the process from beginning to end. It would not be necessary to hire a civilian consulting firm to establish the Assessment Center, as most civilian corporations do. There is sufficient expertise and material available within the resources of Air University to establish a developmental Assessment Center method in any Air Force school. Squadron Officer School has used only minimum outside resources in establishing their Assessment Center program.

The reader may be thinking at this point that Squadron Officer School, with its Project X, management games, group discussion seminars, and field activities, provides a unique proving ground for the Assessment Center method. But what about the other professional schools? As a matter of fact, the Air Command and Staff College, Air War College, Chaplain Orientation Course, Professional Military Comptroller Course, Professional Personnel Management Course, and the USAF Senior NCO Academy are all engaged in various forms of leadership and management instruction that involve group projects, individual exercises, and group discussions. Furthermore, the AFROTC AS400 Leadership and Management courses provide excellent opportunities to use Assessment Center techniques. The cadet corps training environment would lend itself well to this method. Almost all our leadership schools attempt to develop leadership and management expertise in certain areas at various levels of authority. The Assessment Center method provides dimensions applicable to each of these levels of expertise. It remains for the faculties and staffs of the various Air Force and other service professional military education establishments to determine the specific dimensions and criteria to be measured and developed.

How is Assessment Center 
information used?

The information generated by Assessment Center activities should be disseminated in feedback sessions between faculty instructors and their students. The faculty member, who should also be an assessor, should communicate to the student exactly what he did and did not do in terms of specific leadership dimensions during the exercises. Usually there is more information than the student can handle, because the assessment technique is so thorough. These feedback and counseling sessions are the most important aspect of the Assessment Center in the developmental method; they must be done carefully by faculty members who are well qualified.80 The faculty member should pick out only the most important information that is most closely related to the specific needs of the student.

In the educational environment, information accumulated on each student as a result of the Assessment Center method should be used for school purposes only. This is an important point. Evaluations obtained may also be used for determination of graduate standing, but the information should not be included in any official documentation that leaves the school and becomes part of one's official military records. Since the objective of this use of the Assessment Center method is for developmental purposes, the information should not be used for promotion selection information. It may well be of considerable value for assignment information, however, and it is conceivable that at some point in the future the Air Force will see a need for the placement type of Assessment Center. It should be emphasized, though, that we must know a lot more about this technique before it ever replaces the tried and true "commander's evaluation."

One of the greatest benefits of the Assessment Center method is that the student gains valuable experience from the participation itself, as he undergoes more and more assessment, since the exercises are problem-oriented and can be tailored to the production needs of the school. The faculty members will become more and more proficient at recognizing skills and abilities and will increase their capabilities as evaluators as well as their credibility with the students. Their counseling techniques will also improve. As the student recognizes areas in which he needs improvement, he can concentrate on those skills in further exercises, while continuing to satisfy the academic requirements of the school programs.

It must be repeated, in conclusion, that the Assessment Center method is strictly a method and will only be as good as the time and expertise devoted toward making it work for the particular school. As a technique, it does not provide all the answers to the questions of leadership, but it does provide an effective and objective way of measuring leadership behavior in a situational context. A great deal of time and effort must be invested in the method by each school in order to make it work. The results, as compared to attitudinal surveys, paper-and-pencil exercises, and observations of opportunity made by faculty members, should be informative and instructive for both students and faculty members. The results should be well worth the preparation if the graduates are able to say that they have a better understanding of their personal and professional leadership capabilities in their particular field and have a clear understanding of specific areas for self-improvement. The Assessment Center, as a developmental leadership education method, can assist the Air Force's professional leadership educational system in accomplishing its mission of preparing officers for command and staff duties in all types of Air Force organizations and commands.

AFROTC Detachment 5,
Auburn University


1. Air University, Quarterly Program Summary (Maxwell AFB, Alabama, Headquarters Air University, 1st Quarter, FY75), p. 1.

2. General David C. Jones, "Leadership--the Key to Success," TIG Brief, 28 February 1975, p. 1.

3.Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, USAF (Ret), "The Military Professional" Air University Review, January-February 1975, p. 7.

4. Jones, op. cit.

5. SOS-2, Leadership in the Air Force, Squadron Officer School, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, October 1974, pp. 2-1, 2-2.

6. Robert R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton, "Managerial Facades," Advanced Management Journal, July 1966, p. 31.

7. Hall, Harvey, and Williams, Styles of Management Inventory, copyright 1973 by Teleometrics International, P. O. Drawer 1850, Conroe, Texas. This is a testing and scoring instrument designed specifically to "predict" one’s dominant and backup leadership/management styles in given situations. The results are based on one’s honesty about one’s behavior in these situations.

8. Dr. Fred E. Fiedler, "The Trouble with Leadership Training Is That It Doesn’t Train Leaders," Psychology Today, February 1973, pp. 3-25.

9. Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard, Management of Organizational Behavior (2d ed.; Englewood Cliff's, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 89.

10. Barry M. Cohen, "The Assessment Center," Training in Business and Industry, February 1974, p. 22.

11.William C. Byham, "Assessment Centers for Spotting Future Managers," Harvard Business Review, July-August 1970, p. 151.

12. Colonel Russell V. Ritchey, Years of the Tiger, Squadron Officer School, Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, June 1974, pp. 67-68.

13. This statement is based on conversations between the author and representatives from the U.S. Army Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia, during the author's visits to that school in 1973 and 1974. (Hereafter cited at USAIS.)

14. Byham, p. 151.

15. Ibid.

16. William C. Byham and Carl Wettenel, "Assessment Centers for Supervisors and Managers,"Public Personnel Management, September-October 1974, p. 352.

17. This information is based on the author's visit to the Aeronautical Systems Division Assessment Center at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, including conversations with the Director of that center, William L. Bryant (Hereafter cited as ASD Center.)

18. U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command TRADOC Leadership Conference Report, U.S. Army Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia 20-24 May 1974, p.70. (Hereafter cited as TRADOC Report.)

19. Ibid., pp. 75-76.

20. USAIS.

21. Development Dimension, Inc., Catalog of Assessment and Development Exercises, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1975, p. 2.

22. Ibid.

23. Byham, pp. 162-63.

24. Cohen, p. 21.

25. ASD Center.

26. Barry M. Cohen, William C. Byham, and Joseph L. Moses, "The Validity of Assessment Centers," unpublished literature survey, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1974, p. 1.

27. Byham and Wettenel, p. 352.

28. Cohen, p. 23.

29. TRADOC Report, pp. 74-75.

30. ASD Center.


Major Peter L. Henderson (M.B.A., Inter-American University, Puerto Rico) is Assistant Professor of Aerospace Studies, Auburn University, Alabama. He has served with the security police in several locations, including a tour with the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing at Phu Cat AB, Republic of Vietnam, 1970-1971. He has been a missile crew commander, missile wing plans officer in the SAC Minuteman system, and recently served as the leadership curriculum manager on the staff of Squadron Officer School. Major Henderson is a graduate of Squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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