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Q:  As part my doctoral program, I recently completed a capstone project designed to improve the practices of senior leaders within our healthcare facilities by implementing a leadership development program. The curriculum for one of two classes was built around The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, including pre- and post-administration of the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI®) involving 10 participants and 100 observers.  I had hypothesized that the post-class LPI results (administered 3 months later) would demonstrate at least a one-increment improvement from the pre-course scores for each participant. The results I obtained, however, were statistically insignificant.  I’m wondering why. While the time between pre- and post-administration of the LPI may be one factor, are there any other possible influences that could have affected the results? 

A:  Thanks for sharing your information about this important project, and congratulations on moving forward in your doctoral program. I’m happy to offer some general reflections that might be helpful in considering your specific question. 

Foremost, your organization’s culture, its overall support for continuous learning and leadership development initiatives, current leadership capabilities and engagement / motivation of your senior leadership team are all factors that may, more than anything else, account for the lack of significant change in your study. In addition, the lack of statistical significance may be due to the small sample size involved in the study, and the rather large differences that would be required with such a sample size to generate statistical significance. Furthermore, the lack of statistical significance may also suggest in your instance (and organization) just how difficult it can be to change leadership behaviors in a relatively short period of time. The fact that there were only 90 days or so between the two administrations of the LPI may simply not have allowed enough time for either any substantive changes to have been made or sufficiently evident to others.  In fact, observers may well have been skeptical (even cynical) that their leaders were serious about making any real changes in their behaviors over such a short period of time.

There also are other factors that could be at play here. For example, as you saw in your own study results, we often find that scores go down or do not change in the second administration of the LPI. This can happen for a number of reasons. It is possible that by the second iteration observers/constituents expect more from their leaders. When completing the LPI the first time, observers are perhaps mostly descriptive as they respond to each of the 30 behavioral statements; the second time around may trigger, even unconsciously, their aspirations or ideal of the leader. We are often harder on ourselves and others once we know what they said they were going to do (e.g., become better leaders) and what they have actually accomplished to-date. That being said, however, in the third administration of the LPI we do see scores go up, perhaps signaling a significant change in actual behavior or simply an acknowledgement that the behavioral changes of the senior leader are sincere.

One final thought…Of the two classes you offered, only one focused on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, the basis of the assessment measure (i.e., LPI), and perhaps participants did not have sufficient time in the “class” (program) to internalize significant changes. While the leader and observers scores did not show any statistical changes, it is possible that participants in the program (a) did show improvements compared with their counterparts who did not go through the program and (b) the participant population was systematically different from the senior leadership population at large, and this biased the results. An interesting follow-up study might be to take a more classical experimental design approach: the LPI would be administered to every member of the senior leadership team at both time periods; one group would participate in the leadership program, the other group would not. You could then see if the two groups were different or not as a result of having attended the leadership program (and/or receiving feedback on the LPI). A recent study found, by the way, that letting participants know that there would be some follow-up (e.g., a subsequent administration of the LPI), motivated them to engage more frequently in new behaviors than did participants who thought the program was over and were not being subject to any accountability in the future.

I hope you find these perspectives helpful. And good luck in your future research endeavors!

Barry Posner is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, where he served as Dean for 12 years. Together with Jim Kouzes, he is author of over thirty books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the recently released, fully-revised and updated fifth edition of The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.

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