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SURI: Transformational Leadership Among VMI Cadets and the Psychological Motivation Link

LEXINGTON, Va. July 7, 2023 — Leadership is one of the foundations of Virginia Military Institute. The concept is something Anthony Cruz Fernandez-Grimes ’25 is exploring for his summer research project.  

The Summer Undergraduate Research Institute (SURI) is a program offered by the VMI Center for Undergraduate Research (VCUR), which provides cadets with a unique opportunity to delve into high-level research that relates to their degree path. It consists of cadet-led research under the direction of a faculty advisor. 

Fernandez-Grimes’ topic is entitled “The Role of Psychological Capital and Motivation to Lead in Predicting Transformational Leadership Among VMI Cadets.” A student with a professor doing research at VMI, a military college in Virginia

“My SURI project is about understanding what elements make up great leadership,” the psychology major said. “Great leadership gets the goal at hand completed and unites the followers together making it their intrinsic goal rather than completing a task for extrinsic reasons. This is called transformational leadership.” 

His project looks to find if a leader has a positive outlook on themselves, psychological capital, and if they want to lead, have the motivation to lead, and the effects if they become transformational leaders. Originating from the leadership scholar James MacGregor Burns, transformational leadership embraces an inspiring vision and encourages followers to engage in positive organizational change, according to Fernandez-Grimes’ advisor Maj. Michael LaRocca.  

According to the leadership scholars Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio, transformational leadership consists of charisma, individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation, and inspirational motivation. Fernandez-Grimes has explored all of these factors in his research. This leadership practice generates more follower satisfaction and perceived leadership effectiveness. 

“Whether or not they are considered transformational leaders is graded by their own followers,” Fernandez-Grimes said. “While their psychological capital and motivation to lead are graded by the leaders themselves. This should help in reducing any bias in the leaders considering themselves to be transformational or not.” 

According to the leadership researchers Fred Luthans and Avolio, psychological capital can be described by confidence, optimism, hope, and resilience. It’s known to have a positive impact on academic performance, job satisfaction, and job performance, Fernandez-Grimes’ research said. But, overall, there’s little research on how it is correlated to transformational leadership, especially in environments like military institutions. That’s where Fernandez-Grimes comes in.  

LaRocca, assistant professor of psychology at VMI, said during his initial meetings with Fernandez-Grimes he expressed interest in learning more about transformational leadership. With his own collection of cadet leadership data, LaRocca encouraged Fernandez-Grimes to explore psychological predictors of transformational leadership. 

“When he works on his research after a meeting with me, I’ve found I can be hands-off because he does a great job in seeing his work to completion,” LaRocca said.  

Fernandez-Grimes and LaRocca met for an hour daily during the Summer Session I.  

Fernandez-Grimes chose the topic at hand to gain research experience to propel his goal of becoming a clinical psychologist.  

A student with a professor doing research at VMI, a military college in Virginia“The idea of creating a better understanding of leadership could help many systems in place run smoother. It could validate VMI's leadership system even more,” he said. “This topic will help further prove the excellent quality of leadership VMI produces and help other cadets and my understanding of how to lead accordingly in the future of our cadetship.” 

He hopes to gain a better understanding of research within his field while expanding others' understanding of the benefits of VMI leadership training. 

According to his research, there’s overwhelming evidence that transformational leadership is linked with positive organizational outcomes, but more research is needed on the psychological motives of aspiring transformational leaders in leadership development institutions.  

His research will test the correlation between psychological capital and transformational leadership, as well as between the motivation to lead and transformational leadership. He will also explore the motivation to lead as a potential mediator between psychological capital and transformational leadership. He will be using and analyzing data collected from VMI cadet rankers and cadet followers on their experiences and thoughts on their motivation to lead, psychological capital, and other transformational leadership, with the results hoping to advance understanding of transformational leadership and VMI’s leadership production results. 

“In my opinion, leadership is always a hot topic,” LaRocca said. “Individuals and organizations are often interested in how to lead effectively, and this especially applies to VMI, which is often described as a leadership laboratory. By understanding how leadership motivation and psychological capital are associated with transformational leadership, we have a better idea of the psychological characteristics of effective leaders. This is especially important given the high volatility and uncertainty faced by many organizations today.” 

Working with Fernandez-Grimes, LaRocca said he exhibited a combination of curiosity and hard work. With that, he knew he would excel in the SURI program.  

“Anthony works with much energy and enthusiasm because he is naturally interested in the mind, brain, and behavior, including their role in interpersonal effectiveness,” LaRocca said. “He has asked lots of questions and talked about his ideas on the psychological makeup of inspirational leadership. He has indicated that he would like to continue psychology and leadership research with me after SURI.” 

The SURI program allows cadets to go beyond the classroom and explore a topic in great depth, during which they gain research, analytic, and writing skills, LaRocca said. The experience allows cadets and faculty at VMI to build valuable relationships. 

“The SURI program allows cadets, like me, [who are] interested in proceeding to graduate school to gain research experience,” Fernandez-Grimes said. “It also allows all cadets to produce new findings of what they want to know themselves instead of just learning about it on a daily basis.” 

Laura Peters Shapiro
Photos by Kelly Nye
Communications & Marketing

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