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Dr. Elena Mastors, American Public University – Profiling Adversarial Leaders


In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Elena Mastors of American Public University explains the value of understanding the psychological profile of adversarial leaders in armed conflicts. 

Dr. Elena Mastors is a professor of intelligence studies and Dean of Doctoral Studies at American Public University. She is an expert on political psychology as it pertains to conflict, terrorism, and political leadership and she writes frequently on understanding leaders and group dynamics. She has conducted field work in Northern Ireland and her most recent book is Breaking al-Qaeda.

About Dr. Mastors

Dr. Elena Mastors – Profiling Adversarial Leaders

Political scientists and psychologists alike argue that “leaders matter.”  In particular, understanding the psychology of adversarial leaders is crucial if academics are to present political and military decision makers with well-informed policy paths.  

To be sure, some psychologically-based studies do present illuminating profiles of adversarial leaders. However, many studies are narrow in scope and are lacking in expository value that might be useful for decision makers.   

My research goal was to develop a more comprehensive approach for analyzing leaders of armed groups.  The resulting framework is composed of four elements that provide a comprehensive picture of the adversarial leader: personal characteristics, operating environment, advisory process, and information environment.  

When we think about personal characteristics, areas to analyze are cognitive/personality elements as well as relevant biographical data.  Examining a leader’s operating environment means looking at characteristics such as ethnocentrism, distrust of others, allegiances, and the constituency base.  We also need to define a leader’s thinking style--how they process information and like that information packaged.

Understanding a leader’s advisory process leads us to understand how decisions are made; for this we examine key advisors, formal and informal networks, and sources of influence.  Related but not limited to the advisory process is the study of groups and organizational processes. These are important as leaders often operate within and around groups and can influence and be influenced by them.  

Taken together, these areas provide information that is crucial for intelligence planning purposes.  By profiling adversarial leaders, we gain in-depth knowledge and can create strategic plans for creating influence or disrupting activities.   

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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