Many decades ago, I spent what seemed like a great deal of time under a scorching sun, watching groups of sweaty soldiers as they solved a problem. I was doing my national service in the Israeli army at the time. I had completed an undergraduate degree in psychology, and was assigned to the army's psychology branch, where one of my duties was to help evaluate candidates for officer training. We used methods that had been developed by the British army in the second world war.
One test, called the "leaderless group challenge", was conducted on an obstacle field. Eight candidates, strangers to one another, were instructed to lift a long log from the ground and carry it to a wall about six feet high. The entire group had to get to the other side of the wall without the log touching either the ground or the wall, and without anyone touching the wall. If any of these things happened, they had to declare it and start again.
There was more than one way to solve the problem. A common solution was for the team to send several men to the other side by crawling over the log as it was held at an angle, like a giant fishing rod, by other members of the group. Or else some soldiers would climb on to someone's shoulders and jump across. The last man would then have to jump up at the pole, held up at an angle by the rest of the group, shin his way along its length as the others kept him and the pole suspended in the air, and leap safely to the other side. Failure was common at this point, which required them to start all over again.
As a colleague and I monitored the exercise, we made a note of who took charge, who tried to lead but was rebuffed, how cooperative each soldier was in contributing to the group effort. We saw who seemed to be stubborn, submissive, arrogant, patient, hot-tempered, persistent, or a quitter.
We sometimes saw competitive spite when someone whose idea had been rejected by the group no longer worked very hard. And we saw reactions to crisis: who berated a comrade whose mistake had caused the whole group to fail, who stepped forward to lead when the exhausted team had to start over. Under the stress of the event, we felt, each man's true nature revealed itself.
After watching the candidates make several attempts, we had to summarise our impressions of soldiers' leadership abilities and determine, with a score, who should be eligible for officer training. The task was not difficult, because we felt we had already seen each soldier's leadership skills.
Some of the men had looked like strong leaders, others had seemed like wimps or arrogant fools, others mediocre but not hopeless. Quite a few looked so weak that we ruled them out as candidates for officer rank. When our multiple observations of each candidate converged on a coherent story, we were confident in our evaluations and felt that what we had seen pointed to the future. The soldier who took over when the group was in trouble and led the team over the wall was a leader at that moment. The obvious best guess about how he would do in training, or in combat, was that he would be as effective then as he had been at the wall. Any other prediction seemed inconsistent with the evidence before our eyes.
Because our impressions of how well each soldier had performed were generally coherent and clear, our formal predictions were just as definite. We rarely experienced doubts or formed conflicting impressions. We were quite willing to declare: "This one will never make it," "That fellow is mediocre, but he should do OK," or "He will be a star." We felt no need to question our forecasts, moderate them, or equivocate. If challenged, however, we were prepared to admit: "But of course anything could happen."
We were willing to make that admission because, despite our definite impressions about individual candidates, we knew with certainty that our forecasts were largely useless. The evidence was overwhelming. Every few months we had a feedback session in which we learned how the cadets were doing at the officer training school and could compare our assessments against the opinions of commanders who had been monitoring them for some time. The story was always the same: our ability to predict performance at the school was negligible. Our forecasts were not much better than blind guesses.
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