Ask An Expert

Q: I’ve recently noticed a change in the way The Leadership Challenge® and the LPI®: Leadership Practices Inventory® are described.  They used to be referred to as “research-based,” but now it’s “evidence-based.”  What do these terms actually mean? What’s the difference? 

A: Perhaps the simplest way to make the distinction between these two terms is to say that evidence is what is discovered from doing research. In other words, we conduct research in order to discover evidence. 

Evidence is the outcome; research is the process.

When we conduct research, we critically investigate or experiment with the aim of discovering new facts, revising existing theories, or making practical applications of new ideas. If we do the research in a way that meets acceptable standards we get valid and reliable (and we hope useful) information or evidence. 

Something that is research-based, then, has been developed through a process of investigation, inquiry or experimentation. Something that is evidence-based has valid and reliable information to support the claims that are made. That’s exactly what we’ve done in the 30-plus years of work investigating what leaders do when they are performing at their best. In that sense, The Leadership Challenge and the LPI: Leadership Practices Inventory are both research-based and evidence-based.

The Leadership Challenge is the original research-based leadership development framework. When we began our initial investigation in the early 1980s, we wanted to know what leaders did when they were at their best. We created a research protocol that we called the Personal-Best Leadership Experience questionnaire. There were 38 open-ended questions.  We collected more than 5,000 of these surveys and another 10,000 respondents completed a short form questionnaire. We also conducted in-depth, face-to-face and telephone interviews and those now number over 500. The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® model emerged from our analysis of the actions people described in their personal-best stories. 

The items for the LPI were derived by recording specific one-sentence statements of behavior described in the Personal-Best Leadership Experiences. Statements were selected, modified, or discarded following lengthy discussions and iterative feedback sessions with respondents and subject matter experts, as well as through empirical analyses of the behavior-based statements. The result, after several iterations, was the 30-item LPI. And we continue to work to improve the validity and reliability of the instrument through ongoing research.

Model creation and development of the LPI have been only part of our research. The other part continues to examine whether or not frequent use of The Five Practices makes a difference in the workplace and also the extent to which demographic characteristics explain the impact that leaders have. Two separate assessments are used to make these determinations. Our Positive Workplace Attitudes (PWA) survey measures what scholars and practitioners commonly refer to as “engagement” at work. A second set of questions that LPI respondents voluntarily complete are about nine demographic variables. These studies enable us to answer the “so what” question: Does it matter if leaders demonstrate The Five Practices more or less frequently? Does it really matter how leaders behave? This is the evidence-based part.

The answer to the “so what” question is this: It makes a significant and meaningful difference how frequently leaders demonstrate The Five Practices. The more frequently leaders demonstrate the behaviors measured by the LPI the higher the workplace engagement. And, it doesn’t matter if the leaders or constituents are young or old, male or female, from one country or another, at senior levels or on the front line, or have any of the other demographic characteristics. They account for next to nothing in terms of engagement. What matters most is what leaders do. 

The evidence is clear: leadership makes a difference and exemplary leadership makes a positive difference. 

Jim Kouzes
is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., he is also winner of the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by Trust Across America. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of The Leadership Challenge—now in its fifth edition—and over thirty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development.

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