Chapter 2 Impactful knowledge creation
Evidence-based leadership development
Reading time: 6 minutes
by RSM Case Development Centre
Throughout history, leadership has been vital to the fortunes of companies and entire economies alike. At the organisational level, success depends largely on the effective management of human capital.
Yet today’s complex world requires leaders to deal with ‘wicked problems’ – challenges that involve so many variables that it’s impossible to solve them with charisma or talent alone. The Erasmus Centre for Leadership (ECL) contributes to the understanding of effective leadership through fundamental and applied research into the field. It works with the school community and with external partners to produce the type of leaders today’s world needs.
ECL identifies leadership development as a core research area. One important topic of this research is longitudinal leadership development. A team of researchers at ECL including Prof. Daan Stam, Prof. Taco Reus, Prof. Marius van Dijke and Prof. Steffen Giessner are looking to answer a simple but important question: do leadership development programmes make a difference? This effort aims to track leaders for a long period of time – more than 10 years. The professors plan to track incoming students at RSM and will keep in contact with them until long after they have graduated. The team wants to expand the study to involve other business schools around the world. The focus of the research is not just on understanding whether and how a leadership development programme works, but also the different ways in which it could potentially work. The study will be the first of its kind and mirrors similar studies in health and anthropology, among other subjects. Its size and duration are unprecedented in the domain of leadership development research.
With ever-increasing numbers of burn-out and stress-related absenteeism, leaders often find themselves in situations where they have to manage multiple leadership challenges. The list includes the traditional ones – such as navigating the political landscape within an organisation – but leaders also have to lead themselves and others in a way that promotes mental and physical well-being. So another area of research at ECL is health and leadership.
The Centre is in the process of setting up several pilot studies within private companies and the school to explore the relationships between cognitive stress, recovery times, leadership behaviour and follower behaviour. They ask volunteers to use state-of-the-art wearables (Oura ring, AlmaCare watch) that measure key indicators, such as real-time stress, and sleep and heart rate variability. Unlike recovery time from physical exercise, mental (cognitive) recovery time has not yet been thoroughly studied. However, in an environment where more and more people engage in cognitive rather than physical labour, understanding mental recovery times could become a potentially powerful addition to a leader’s toolbox to safeguard employees’ mental well-being while at the same time optimising their performance.
All research carried out by ECL promotes evidence-based leadership. Articles by ECL researchers are published in top journals such as Journal of Business Ethics, The Academy of Management Annals, and Journal of Management Studies, of which Taking stock of moral approaches to leadership: An integrative review of ethical, authentic and servant leadership (Lemoine, Hartnell & Leroy, 2018) has been downloaded over 10,200 times.
ECL demonstrates the value of its research not only through citations of its publications in top academic journals, but also by showcasing its practical value and impact in the real world through education, communication and community-building.
ECL is the driving force behind an international consortium of top business schools, including Johnson Graduate School of Management, Darden School of Business, Duke, INSEAD, the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and others, in setting up a leadership development accreditation scheme based on rigorous scientific research. The longitudinal leadership development study contributes to the formulation of accreditation standards.
In line with its research on leadership and health, ECL has developed the Superhuman Balance Track, in which relevant research outcomes are translated into an educational programme to help participants enhance their resilience to stress and improve mental and physical well-being. This programme has been offered as an extra-curricular activity for interested MBA students at RSM. Currently the programme is being revised so that it will also be suitable for RSM’s Executive Education department, and will include a component on how to manage the well-being of others.
Other educational initiatives include the creation of a massive online open course on leadership, a course on leadership for executives working within port environments offered through RSM Executive Education, a leadership expedition in which top business schools compete against each other, and a Frontiers in Leadership masterclass series hosted by RSM and organised in collaboration with RSM’s alumni team. The masterclasses will present the latest research findings to interested students, alumni and professionals.
ECL not only teaches evidence-based leadership to professionals and business students; it also communicates innovative research findings about leadership to the general public. ECL has created several videos showcasing its activities as well as a podcast in which researchers discuss real business problems and debunk unfounded leadership theories found in popular media. In addition, ECL has published a wide variety of articles in RSM Discovery magazine and on the Forbes website.
Through education and communication, ECL aims to build a community of leadership enthusiasts who care about societal values. It recently created the personal leadership development (PLD) roundtable to bring together RSM faculty members and professional services staff involved in leadership education across the school. The PLD roundtable gives participants the opportunity to discuss educational challenges and exchange ideas on how to create more impactful leadership development curricula. As a result, curricula at RSM are more aligned than they were in the past. ECL is currently developing a number of tools that can be used by PLD teachers in their courses.
ECL also organises ‘Leadership Conversations’ events that bring prominent academics and working professionals together to debate the big leadership challenges of the day, create effective solutions, share best practices, and enjoy what is also an excellent networking opportunity.
Furthermore, ECL has undertaken the provision of the mentoring programme in the BSc and IBA programmes at RSM. The mentor programme was identified as a key avenue in fostering incoming students to become agents for positive change, aiding the transition from high school to university and teaching them to take responsibility for their actions, choices and behaviour.
The mission of ECL is to be a force for positive change by understanding and cultivating the next generation of successful leaders through evidence-based practices. It is making a difference in education, business and society at large – surely and steadily – through its wide variety of projects, all of which are based on thorough research.