Erik Saar was nervous. This spring, the onetime military intelligence analyst at Guantánamo Bay was tackling another harrowing assignment. He was defending his doctoral dissertation.

At the start, the 42-year-old candidate in Alvernia’s Doctor of Philosophy in Leadership program quipped that this moment before the three-person committee — all sitting in the front row, Saar’s wife and in-laws nearby — was proving more nerve-wracking than anything at Gitmo. That included a 2 a.m. call the sergeant got 16 years earlier to help question a possible suspect in the 9/11 attacks.

“I knew the detainee wasn’t there to judge me,” said Saar, an amiable father of two boys, during a break from putting the finishing touches on his 133-page dissertation at the Franco Library. Saar successfully defended his dissertation and received his doctorate in community leadership in May.

In many ways, the reference to Gitmo that day was particularly apt. The Lower Heidelberg Township resident served as an Army intelligence linguist specializing in Arabic while at the controversial facility for six months starting in late 2002. The questionable — and at times deeply disturbing — situations that Saar experienced in a corner of Cuba forever shaped him and pushed him to pursue his Ph.D.

While Gitmo certainly held some bad guys, Saar argues that many detainees were in the wrong place at the wrong time, swept up by militia bounty hunters looking for a payout. None of the 600-plus detainees at the time had been charged or allowed to see a lawyer, arguably contradictory to American values. Interrogators, not bound by the Geneva Conventions, used what Saar called “creative” methods on detainees. Ambiguity was the order of the day. He wondered how much useful intelligence was resulting from the raw tactics.

“The poor leadership I saw there made me think by the time I left that we were doing more harm than good,” said Saar, co-author of the 2005 book “Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantánamo.

“It was one of the things that led me to the study of leadership.”

Exploring motivational beliefs beyond Gitmo
Over the past several years, Saar has been taking courses and doing research on military leaders and their motivational beliefs. This included two classes a week for four-and-a-half years and two years of dissertation research. Meanwhile, he worked full-time, most recently as a cybersecurity contractor for the Defense Department in Fort Meade, Md.

For his thesis, Saar asked current and former military leaders how strongly they agreed with various statements that corresponded to four theories of motivation. They included methods that rely on a worker’s innate need to achieve and seek power (achievement motivation) or a prescribed mix of rewards and punishments to influence behavior.

A more recent theory, popularized in Daniel H. Pink’s 2009 New York Times best-seller “Drive,” argues that the best leaders create a workplace environment where people are intrinsically motivated because they have a sense of autonomy, a sense of relatedness to other people in an organization and a sense of individual competence. It is known as the self-determination theory, and Saar hypothesized that military leaders would favor it.

“I thought it was consistent with military culture,” he says. And his research proved him right. But when Saar examined military training manuals, self-determination theory was overlooked and not taught as a leadership doctrine. “In short,” he wrote in his dissertation, “as theories of motivation have evolved, military doctrine and leadership training have not kept pace.”

Saar’s adviser, Dr. Scott Ballantyne, associate professor of business, praises the research as “eye opening. … If you have a better understanding, a better grasp of what motivates different employees, you have a better job of improving efficiency and overall outcomes of the organization.”

He expects Saar’s work to result in at least a few publications. “He is the absolute expert,” Ballantyne says. “He knows more about this subject than anyone else on this planet.”

Back in 2002, though, Saar never expected to be an expert on motivational theories. He was eager to do his part in the war on terror. Five years earlier, the marketing graduate of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre was working sales at UPS. After a year, the Middle East political junkie talked to the Army. It offered to train him in Arabic — giving him an in with the national security sector — and forgave his student loans. Win-win.

In August 2001, Saar the linguist was assigned to assist the FBI in New York. When the horrific 9/11 attacks occurred the next month, his Arabic skills were in high demand. With the United States threatening to invade Iraq, Saar volunteered to go to Guantánamo Bay in 2002. “I volunteered because I thought I was going to a place where we were holding the worst of the worst,” he says.

Instead, Saar found a dysfunctional operation with no clear rules. “In a lot of ways, what I experienced was really antithetical to Army values,” he says. “The biggest thing was a lack of moral clarity as to what was acceptable and not acceptable. The ambiguity was the biggest recipe for failure, in my view.”

One of the most shocking incidents occurred toward the end of his stay. A female interrogator tried to sexually arouse and humiliate a detainee suspected of involvement in 9/11. She went as far as to remove her blouse, rub her chest on his back and spread red ink — which she told him was menstrual blood — on his face. The goal was to make him feel dirty and unable to pray and thereby prevent him from relying on his faith for strength.

As a practicing Christian, Saar says the whole incident was “pretty disturbing.” But Saar didn’t object only on moral grounds. He had strategic concerns. “What we were doing there was counterproductive in the greater counterterrorism effort,” he says. Particularly bad in that respect, the misconduct — eventually leaked to the media — served as a “significant recruitment tool” for our enemies, he says.

Since leaving the Army in 2004, Saar has continued to work in intelligence, earned a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University (2007) and consulted with the National Joint Operations and Intelligence Center. He also teaches intelligence studies for the online American Military University.

One of the high points, Saar says, has been the pursuit of his doctorate. He especially enjoyed the program’s cohort structure that creates a diverse community. “That made the experience much more enjoyable,” he says. “We created lasting bonds.”

Dr. Tufan Tiglioglu, director of the Ph.D. program in leadership and associate professor of business, says Saar exhibited his own style of leadership in class as he shared his experiences both in and out of the military. “Our goal is to create ethical leaders with moral courage,” he says. “Our Franciscan heritage is the foundation. It is a values-centered education, and we want our students to be role models.”

Certainly, Saar is one such example.