Skip to main content


Army Research Institute re-ups Foster School leadership development study

The Army Research Institute has extended its contract with the University of Washington Foster School of Business to examine the leadership growth and development of the U.S. Military Academy’s 1998 graduating class.

The institute will award nearly $300,000 over two years to the Foster School’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking (CLST) to advance its Baseline Officer Longitudinal Development Study (BOLDS). The study was initiated at the US Military Academy in 1994 when the cadets first arrived.

This extension follows an earlier $700,000 contract with the CLST to fund the first phase of the study—one of the longest longitudinal studies of leadership ever undertaken.

Leading the effort is Dr. Bruce J. Avolio, the Mark Pigott Chair in Business Strategic Leadership at Foster and executive director of the CLST.

“We know that leadership development unfolds over time, but most of the evidence in the leadership literature covers very short time spans in terms of examining leadership development,” says Avolio, who has been involved with the project since its early days. “The BOLDS study is unique in that we can look at early factors that have shaped the leaders’ development in our sample—leadership roles in high school, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and in first duty assignments, through to current leadership roles as the participants reach midcareer either in the military or now outside.

“This presents a rare opportunity to examine such a significant timeline in evaluating a process, such as leadership development, that we know takes time to mature.”

Unprecedented data

The founders of BOLDS initially gathered biographical data on more than 800 cadets entering West Point in 1994. They chronicled personal and family histories and collected data on personality, behavior, and leadership development and performance throughout their collegiate careers and summer work experiences. After graduation many of the cadets were deployed to Afghanistan. More than 50 did not return. The study has continued to track the surviving men and women as they have continued their military careers or moved on to other work.

In 2008, the Army Research Institute contracted the Foster School CLST to reconnect with the BOLDS graduates on the occasion of their 10-year college reunion. CLST also became a clearinghouse for all of the data previously collected by the ARI and affiliated BOLDS researchers over the years. CLST researchers sorted and cataloged thousands of paper surveys and assessments and merged numerous electronic databases to enable reliable longitudinal analysis.

That was phase one. In phase two, the CLST will conduct a 360-degree assessment, collecting data on how current peers, supervisors and direct reports view the leadership of the participants, as well as data on the events that have shaped their leadership over the past 15 years.

All hands project

Working with Avolio on BOLDS is the entire CLST faculty and staff. Researchers Chelley Patterson and Nicole Ruedy, and doctoral candidates Hana Johnson, Fong Keng-Highberger and Kaeleen Drummey will assist in the search for and re-engagement of BOLDS alumni, preparation of the 360-degree assessment, managing the human subjects and institutional review board process to ensure informed consent and protection of participant anonymity, and data analysis. Staff members Linda Hietbrink and Jenny Nguyen will support operational aspects of the project.

In addition to its goal of better understanding how leadership develops, BOLDS will also attempt to provide insights on “extreme” performance. It’s one of the few leadership studies that has ever collected predictors and performance data over extended periods of time, allowing researchers to differentiate leaders performing in extremely challenging contexts (such as combat).

“A unique feature of BOLDS is that all participants started their careers at the same time, in the same institution and entered into the same ranked leadership position,” says Avolio. “There is no other longitudinal study in the field of leadership with such a controlled starting point for assessing leadership emergence, development and performance.”

UW students interested in volunteering as research assistants on this project should contact Linda Hietbrink at lhietbrink@uw.edu.