Officer, special forces instructor, lecturer, and researcher. Interview with Ole Boe, visiting professor at the UG Institute of Psychology

Prof. Ole Boe, fot. Alan Stocki

Prof. Ole Boe, fot. Alan Stocki

He is a retired captain in the Norwegian Armed Forces and Norway's first professor in military command. He served for many years as an operations officer in a Norwegian military special unit; he has participated in several international operations around the world and has also been an instructor in special forces units and police. His current focus is on occupational psychology in uniformed services. Author of more than 400 publications, he collaborates with many researchers from all over the world - including dr hab. Andrzej Piotrowski, prof. UG, at whose invitation he visited the Institute of Psychology at the University of Gdańsk.


Karolina Żuk-Wieczorkiewicz: - Researcher, soldier, teacher, professor. What way do you usually think about yourself?

Ole Boe: - That’s a very good question. Normally today I think about myself as a teacher and researcher, because that’s my main occupation. But as I spent almost 20 years in military systems, first as a soldier, then as an officer, that is also an important part of myself.

- You did many things in your life. I suppose you have a strong educational background. Can you tell us about it?

- If you think of regular academic education, I have a bachelor’s degree in theories of science and education, a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering, a Master's in social sciences and a PhD in cognitive psychology - that’s the civilian side of my education. And from the military side, I have basic officer training and military academy training, and then I was a student of the Norwegian  Defense Command and Staff College. I also worked as an instructor at the Norwegian Military Academy and at the Norwegian Defense University College. Of course, there were many years of different kinds of military education, but this doesn’t give academic credits.

- Do you connect your military experience with your academic career?

- Yes, I do. The reason why I started studying psychology was based on some experiences from the military that I felt I needed to know something more about. I thought that psychology would probably give me the answer. I use a lot of military experience not only in my research. I wrote a book about military leadership, I was also the first professor of military leadership in Norway. I think most of the research I do is in the military context. Even though I work at the Norwegian Police University College now, it’s still connected to the military.

- What are the main challenges or problems in uniformed services?

- That’s a very good question. The main problem in the Norwegian military system is how to keep people in the system for a long time - and this is the same for the police. So it’s about giving them education and then follow-up, and giving them further training and education… For some reason people want to leave and do something else - that may be because of lack: they want more money or more opportunities to be educated and trained - and they also want to spend more time with their family. Especially in the military sometimes you need to work in a place far away and then you go back. After some years of this, it becomes very hard. This is the biggest challenge in this type of organisations: to keep people in the system for a long time.

- I suppose psychology plays an important role in uniformed forces training?

- I’m actually a bit surprised that in the military as well as in the police system in Norway there’s not enough psychology. We don’t have subjects such as military psychology or police psychology. I’m surprised that we’re using so much time and money for training people but there’s not enough people who know enough about how to use psychology to improve performance and everything - and that’s really strange. I would think that - for instance - learning how to cope with stress could be more effective if somebody could teach about different techniques. If you think about leadership (which is one of the most important things to do in the military: to lead people), it is about 80-85% psychology: how you connect with people or how you manipulate them if you want to make them do something.

- What are your most important research areas?

- How to become a better leader is basically the main topic. The following questions are: how to select best leaders, how to train them, how to predict who would be the best. Another important field is stress management and coping with stress. I work a lot on resilience - how to make people more resilient so that they can tolerate being in a difficult situation for a long time. I also do a lot of research on character strengths.

- What are character strengths?

- It is about attitudes and values. Let’s say: integrity is a character strength. You probably know some people that you think about: ‘Oh, that person has a lot of integrity’. Integrity means that when you say you’re going to do something, everyone can trust that you’ll do that. Another character strength is humour. There are people who - whatever happens, in a bad or difficult situation - respond with laughter or joke.

- Humour seems to be underestimated as a strength.

- Yes! And it’s a fantastic tool. Then you have social intelligence. If I have a lot of that character strength, I sense what people need. I don’t know exactly what they feel and think because I can just observe their behaviour but it’s like I can sense and adapt my behaviour, thinking and feeling in order to help them. Based on research, there are 24 character strengths that you can find in all cultures. Everyone knows what hope is, as well as humour, curiosity, creativity, bravery and so on. There may be some differences - for example, we may laugh at different things in India and Poland, but humour is still recognised in many cultures. We’ve done a lot of research on character strengths and their importance for military officers, and how to select and train people in Norway. It’s very interesting.

- What are the main features of a good leader?

- Describing features of a good leader is very easy. Imagine a figure: the firs axis is ‘tasks’, and the axis goes from ‘not doing them’ to ‘doing them very well’. The other axis is ‘people’, and it’s from ‘not taking care of people’ to ‘taking care of people very well’. So, there are two things you need to do: you need to complete missions and tasks you have - and you need to take care of people. Some people are very good at finishing and doing their tasks, they do their job, but they don’t take care of the others. Other leaders may be taking care of people, but not doing the tasks. The best leader is the one in the middle: he or she completes all the tasks - but also takes care of people at the same time. For me, it’s very simple because it comes down to values and attitudes. Referring to character strengths, there are three or four of them which predict that some people would be good leaders or get into a military academy or military special units: integrity, bravery, teamwork (ability to work together), perseverance (ability to keep on doing things for a long time) and social intelligence. I need to connect with people; I need to be able to work with people; I need to be honest; I need to be brave in some situations. If the score is high at these character strengths, I can predict that a person will probably be a good leader.

- What do you appreciate most in visiting the city and the University of Gdansk?

- First of all, I appreciate very much the possibility of coming here and talking to psychology students about the things I do research on. Maybe not so many people in Poland know about this type of research. I find the atmosphere here very friendly; people are friendly, it’s an open, inclusive environment. Students are nice and they ask questions - and I’m hopeful that I give them some meaning to what I talk about. I like the environment of the university a lot, it’s very safe and comforting - just a good place to be.

- What do you like about working with prof. Andrzej Piotrowski?

- What I like most is that he is a nice person with good values and attitude - and we have the same type of humour, so it was very easy to connect some years ago. We’ve done a lot of research since then. He’s very open-minded when it comes to do different kinds of research. There are some people it’s really easy and good to work with. I hope we’ll be able to continue working together for a long time because he has exceptional knowledge about things, he’s also very efficient (and now he’s been taking such a good care of me). He is a very good person and a very good academic.

- Do you see differences between universities in Poland and Norway?

- Students are mostly the same. The difference I see is how you think about hierarchy. In Norway we are very ‘flat’, we have an egalitarian society. If you are a professor, a general, a leader - we can still talk to each other, all the time. In Poland I feel sometimes there’s a more strict hierarchy - it’s a bit different from what I’m used to in Norway. In Poland, when there is a professor, no one can interrupt him. In Norway nobody cares about it: ‘Hey, can I talk to you?’ ‘Yeah, sure’. This is the only difference I really see: in the leadership hierarchy of positions. Maybe you’re a bit more authoritarian.

- One more thing in your research caught my attention. What is a combat mindset?

- Combat mindset is a concept we developed with my colleagues during the last ten years. It consists of three elements. The first thing is how to switch on aggression (even extreme aggression), and then switch it off, and persistence - keeping doing things for a long time so that even if you are tired, you keep on fighting. That’s one part of the combat mindset. The second part is relaxation - that you work on breathing techniques and taking control of your internal emotions and how you feel. The third part of combat mindset is working focus and concentration, becoming better in handling different situations - and assessing information quickly. It consists of different mental techniques to function better - and it can be used in many situations.

- So combat mindset is a tool?

- It’s a box of many tools - and you have to pick the one that is good for you in a particular situation. We wrote a book about this. Even though we wrote about combat mindset from a physical fighting perspective, all the techniques can be used in a daily life. People outside the military often wonder: ‘Why do I need to become aggressive?’ The truth is: almost never. But if I’m in a military system, I need to train on it. I need to work not only on aggression, but on controlling it: knowing how much to deliver and then switching it off. And the ability to switch off aggression is super important because if you don’t do it, you continue to do things that might be morally and legally wrong. This needs to be practised at the top of extreme aggression. It’s very easy to train people to become aggressive. It’s a lot harder to train them to switch off; to recognize the moment when enough is enough. That takes time.

- What are the main challenges in training uniformed forces nowadays?

- It all comes to human capital: how to find people and keep them in the system as long as possible. Fewer people are suitable for military service nowadays. Another problem is that young people are not so much interested in such service, they are interested in themselves. This is a shift in mentality during a few generations - that you don’t see yourself as a contributor to something bigger: the society. That may be a big challenge.

- To turn to something more optimistic: what do you like doing in your spare time?

- I like spending time with my wife - either doing nothing or working on something, or watching TV series. I also like going to my friends, just doing things or talking; going out and doing different kinds of workout (running or whatever). I would like to read more books but for some reason I don’t have so much time. Well, the fact is that I have as much time as everyone else, a 24 hours a day and it’s about how I prioritize things. But the best thing is just being with my wife. And I don’t need to do anything - just enjoy spending time together.

- What would you wish for young people nowadays? What would you wish for students?

- I wish that they succeed with their education, that they get a job that they are happy with, that feels meaningful. I wish that they understand which kind of education to go into in order to get a good job. In Norway we have a problem with different educations. People choose them, thinking: ‘Oh, this is interesting’, but they don’t get a job, because it doesn’t lead to anything meaningful. I hope they enjoy studying, I hope they learn a lot, that they can use it later in daily life. For example, psychology is applicable in almost every situation: work, family colleagues and so on. My advice for every student - not only psychology students - is to learn about psychology because it’s about human beings and how to interact with them.

Karolina Żuk-Wieczorkiewicz/Press Team