School of Behavioral Sciences


Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (PhD)


Nathan J. Borrett


Upper echelon theory, executive cognition, decision-making, VUCA, sensemaking, selective attention, grounded theory, top management teams


Leadership Studies | Psychology


In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, senior executives face a myriad of difficult decisions. These decisions are often accompanied by a barrage of stimuli, which can complicate decision-making processes. To traverse these challenges, those in the upper echelons of leadership must manage their selective attention well, make clear sense of unfolding events, and act upon them in ways that maximize organization outcomes. However, there is a gap in research around how the upper echelons of leadership manage their selective attention in high-stimuli decision scenarios. This qualitative grounded theory research addresses this gap by studying the cognitive processes used by senior military executives to manage their limited attentional resources in such environments. Data was collected via semi-structured interviews of a purposive and snowball sampled group of 18 recently retired senior military officers who held key strategic positions during their time in service. Interviews were transcribed, coded using open and axial techniques, and analyzed to develop a grounded theory of how the upper echelons of leadership navigate information-saturated, high-stimuli environments and manage their limited attentional resources when making high-consequence decisions. Findings show that executives rely heavily on the team of people around them while taking steps to create mental space, and then doing the best they can to gather and prioritize information, given time constraints. This model suggests the top management teams play a central role in helping senior executives manage their limited attention, which can shape how senior executives are chosen and developed.