Cover: Promoting Airmen with the Potential to Lead

Promoting Airmen with the Potential to Lead

A Study of the Air Force Master Sergeant Promotion System

Published Nov 14, 2014

by Kirsten M. Keller, Sean Robson, Kevin O'Neill, Paul Emslie, Lane F. Burgette, Lisa M. Harrington, Dennis Curran


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Research Questions

  1. What are the knowledge, skills and abilities that master sergeants need to be good leaders?
  2. Is the current system effective at promoting airmen with the attributes needed to be good leaders?
  3. What are potential options for improving the master sergeant promotion system to ensure master sergeants have the skills and characteristics needed to succeed?

As operations become more jointly connected with other military services and the Air Force becomes smaller, there is concern that more leadership responsibility and authority is being pushed down to noncommissioned officers. As the first level of senior noncommissioned officers, the ability of master sergeants to be effective leaders is especially critical. A key component of ensuring that master sergeants have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to fulfill the required leadership responsibilities is having an effective system to promote airmen with the greatest potential. Despite changes in force size, operational requirements, and airmen's responsibilities, the current promotion system has remained largely unchanged since it was developed more than 40 years ago. Therefore, RAND researchers assessed the current system and explored areas for possible improvement.

Key Findings

Master Sergeants Need Specific Attributes to Achieve their Designated Responsibilities

  • Master sergeants represent the first level of senior enlisted leadership in the Air Force and are expected to transition from being technical experts and first line supervisors to leaders of operational competence.
  • There are a number of attributes master sergeants must have to be good leaders. These include key technical knowledge as well as four general categories of skills (i.e., cognitive skills, interpersonal skills, business/management skills, and strategic skills).

The Current Promotion System Can Be Improved to Better Assess Leadership Potential

  • The current system provides good measures of many of the key characteristics identified as important for a master sergeant.
  • Current promotion outcomes are largely based on whether airmen have the necessary knowledge and tenure, but not if they are able to actually apply that knowledge or have the motivation to take on increased leadership responsibilities.
  • There are also problems with inflated performance scores; for example, the mean enlisted performance report score for all airmen eligible for promotion to master sergeant is 134 out of 135 points.
  • Overall, the current promotion process is not effectively assessing the full range of abilities or leadership potential needed to successfully perform as a master sergeant in the Air Force.

Several Potential Options for Improvement Exist

  • There are pros and cons to the available assessment methods that could be used to improve the selection system.
  • Overall, adding a situational judgment test and board ratings as additional factors in the promotion process seem most promising.


  • Examine the validity and utility of implementing a situational judgment test and a master sergeant promotion board as additional measures of leadership potential.
  • Explore ways to improve the enlisted performance evaluation process using evidence-based practices.
  • Continue to periodically reevaluate the effectiveness of the promotion system.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Director, Force Development, Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower and Personnel, Headquarters United States Air Force (HQ USAF/A1D) and was conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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