Evidence-Based LeadershipIn the 19th century “snake oil salesmen” travelled throughout North America selling unproven or fraudulent oils, elixirs, and various cure-all remedies. In 1906 the US Pure Food and Drugs Act began to regulate medicines. This was followed by decades of research into drugs, vaccines, public health regulations, and medical treatments that dramatically reduced and even eliminated many diseases and medical problems.

By the 1970s medical practices had come a long way and made many — some quite drastic — improvements to healthcare. But medicine was still mostly a collection of standard and accepted practice that had little grounding in scientific evidence. In 1974, when physician David Eddy was asked to give a talk on how physicians made decisions he went searching for best practices to build a decision tree showing diagnosis and treatment. He was looking for “strong evidence, good numbers, and sound reasoning.” It didn’t exist.

In his American Medical Association Journal of Ethics article, “The Origins of Evidence-Based Medicine — A Personal Perspective,” Eddy writes; “If there wasn’t sufficient information to develop a decision tree, what in the world were physicians basing their decisions on? I then realized that medical decision making was not built on a bedrock of evidence or formal analysis, but was standing on Jell-O.”

He went on to become a pioneering researcher and advocate of what’s become known as Evidence-Based Medicine. Now he writes; “Medical decision making has gone through a fundamental change in the last 40 years. Simply put, the foundation for decision making has shifted away from subjective judgments and reliance on authorities toward a formal analysis of evidence.”

We badly need the same evolution in leadership development. While we’re — mostly — past snake oil solutions, there’s a confusing array of leadership theories, opinions, thesis papers, inspiration, training programs, frameworks, styles, models, and tools. Most of these have little to no grounding in hard research or evidence.

In their white paper, Leadership 6.0: Connecting Leadership Development with Drivers of Business Results,” Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman make a case for leadership development going through this evolution:

1.0  Balancing people and business results.

2.0  Behavioral/skill based approaches.

3.0  Experiential/engaging instructional techniques.

4.0  E-Learning and related technologies.

5.0  Individual responsibility and personalized learning.

6.0  Linked to business/performance results/outcomes with hard data/evidence.


To read the parallels Jack and Joe draw with applying lessons from evidence-based medicine to leadership and the compelling data they’ve uncovered for Leadership 6.0, click here.

ZF has compiled powerful evidence correlating leadership effectiveness with performance outcomes in their new book, How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by Magnifying Your Strengths.