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Third Floor Research: Measuring the impact of leadership development

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies professor Tim Steffensmeier and leadership communication doctoral student, Tamas Kowalik, consider an approach to teaching leadership that can further develop our capacity to exercise leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The impact of leadership development programs oftentimes seems obvious as principles and skills acquired are put into practice in the daily operation of organizations. Anecdotal evidence and testimonies abound regarding the positive impact of leadership trainings. Moreover, it is common practice to evaluate leadership trainings to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Third Floor Research was developed to test and expand upon the ways we measure leadership development. We are curious about how leadership development affects individuals and organizations that are working to make progress on difficult challenges.

Third Floor Research, a partnership with the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) and the Staley School of Leadership Studies, was launched in 2017 to foster innovation on how leadership is exercised and to advance the field of leadership development. The applied research center focuses primarily on the leadership that is needed to make progress on adaptive challenges. The work is to collect and analyze data that produces useful findings on how to exercise leadership.

Despite a multi-billion-dollar leadership industry, there is a paucity of research focused on the impact of leadership development, particularly outside of formal education settings. We lack enough evidence and understanding about the degree to which leadership development improves outcomes. Third Floor Research aims to narrow that gap with a large-scale, multi-partner research center housed at KLC that studies leadership development initiatives. Two primary strategies to attain that goal are research projects and a global database.

Global database
A key solution to understanding the impact of leadership development is the creation of a global database. The database will house participant data from leadership development programs operating in various places in the United States and abroad.

The collected data will include: participant demographics, dosage of leadership content, program support level and participant leadership progress. The database uses a uniform set of data points to offer funders, teachers and curriculum designers a way to measure the impact of their leadership program in relation to other initiatives. The hope is that it will offer programs a way to assess the long-term impacts of their trainings while offering a way to compare and contrast various programs.

Research projects
Third Floor Research is also conducting research projects on an annual basis. From 2019 to 2020, three research projects were completed:

  • Developing leadership capacities in high-tech industry
  • Leadership development and employee engagement in nonprofits
  • Impact of Community leadership programs on work and community engagement

These studies focus on different contexts that use the Kansas Leadership Center’s competency-based approach to leadership. The KLC framework is built on the idea that leadership is an activity available to anyone (O’Malley and Cebula, 2015). As Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) highlights: “We find it extremely useful to see leadership as a practice, an activity that some people do some of the time” (p. 24). Moreover, exercising leadership is about mobilizing people to address difficult, adaptive challenges. These studies found significant findings that correlate KLC’s leadership development training to individual and organizational change. The selected key findings from each study noted below demonstrate our research projects capturing the impact of leadership development.

Study 1: Developing leadership capacities in high-tech industry

Employees are thinking about and doing their work differently

After two years of leadership development trainings for employees at various levels at a site of a fortune 500 high tech company, employees were more confident and prepared to engage in leadership interventions. These include: employees use a shared language to overcome conflict and engage more collaboratively to break down silos across units in the company; employees are more prepared to experiment and try new things; and employees are paying attention to the adaptive challenges in their work.

Study 2: Leadership development and employee engagement in nonprofits

Leadership development = enhanced employee engagement

Employees who are likely to use leadership concepts in their daily work are more committed to their organization, more hopeful about the organization’s future and more satisfied with their job.

Study 3: Impact of Community leadership programs on work and community engagement

Twice as likely to serve in a civic role

After participating in a KLC skills-based leadership training, participants are twice as likely to serve in a civic role (e.g. board member, elected official, advisory group, committee member) compared to generalist leadership programs and the general population.

These findings, alongside the global database, represent attempts to measure the impact of leadership development. Ultimately, we are testing the hypothesis that developing the capacity of many people to exercise leadership on adaptive challenges leads to faster and more progress. While that prediction involves a complex set of interactions, Third Floor Research represents a growing group of scholars and practitioners that are working to understand the collective impact of leadership as activity.


O’Malley and Cebula (2015). Your Leadership Edge. Kanas Leadership Center Press, Wichita, Kansas.

Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Harvard Business Press, Boston

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