The essential guide to evidence-based leadership | The OR Briefings

The essential guide to evidence-based leadership

(Updated June 2018)

Evidence-based leadership refers to the processes and practices of using ‘best evidence’ and ‘hard facts’ about the current situation and what tends to work and what doesn’t, and includes best evidence about how what decisions to make. This means being able to identify and separate facts from half-truths, pet theories, unfounded beliefs and just the just plain wrong that often masquerades as good leadership advice and practice. In this guide I will look at evidence-based leadership, what it is, how to develop and do it, and of course what the latest research evidence is in terms of evidence-based leadership.

This article should be read in conjunction with and is part of The essential guide to evidence-based practice series. As a result this guide will not repeat that guide but rather looks at and focusses on the practice of evidence-based leadership.

NB. Please note this is a living, continually updated document. As a result it changes and is added to frequently as new research and practice-based evidence become available. If there is anything missing or needs correcting please do let us know.


Introduction – the role of the leader

Part of the leaders role is to ensure that decisions and actions taken within the organisation or business are as good as they can be and contribute positively to helping the organisation achieve it’s aims. This includes ensuring the organisation and it’s people are prepared, equipped and resourced so that they can help to move the organisation towards it goal and fulfil its mission(s).



In effect, leaders are there to ensure that the

  • behaviours,
  • actions,
  • skills,
  • knowledge,
  • attitudes,
  • culture,
  • systems
  • procedures
  • processes
  • policies and
  • structures

are as aligned with each other and the aims and mission of the organisation as possible so as to produce as reliable an output as possible.

Additionally it is the leaders responsibility to make sure that decisions and subsequent actions taken across the organisation are based on good sound evidence and rationale.


Leading the way with evidence-based practice

Usually leaders are the individuals who help to establish the culture of EBP in an organisation and, without their effective input, it will be difficult to “set expectations, provide support and demonstrate commitment to an on-going culture of evidence-based practice”.[i] Research has shown that there are specific leader behaviours that will both enhance EBP and facilitate its institutionalisation. These behaviours consist of strategic, functional and cross-cutting approaches. Strategic behaviours mean that a leader has a clear vision, philosophy and provides a governance structure for the development of EBP in the organisation. Strategy here means that the leader will consider how to change the organisational environment over time in a sustainable manner, based on a thorough assessment of the body and any opportunities or barriers to change. This can include making sure that roles include EBP requirements in job descriptions, that the language of EBP is used on a daily basis or that there are good EBP learning resources that are being taken up.[ii]

Functional leadership can involve inspiring and motivating others through mentoring, performance reviews that praise commitments (and also criticise when appropriate) to EBP and fostering a positive can-do culture. Strong practical leadership for EBP can also involve making oneself available and visible to staff, leading and actively taking part in EBP activities and ensuring that individual EBP requests or requirements are fully addressed. A practical hands-on leadership can also be realised by leading introductory courses on EBP within an organisation and through informal methods, such as leading by example. Once EBP has been introduced, it is important that the leader takes an active role in monitoring its progress and getting feedback from others on its efficacy.

Finally, Stetler and others argue that there are certain cross-cutting behaviours which show that strategic and functional approaches often interact. For instance, they refer to the importance of communicating EBP through daily references to an organisation’s vision and strategy. Communication will also be functional in nature through, say, practical discussions and presentations.[iii] Therefore, if EBP is to be properly implemented in an organisation, it must become a normal part of the everyday culture of that organisation. At the leadership level, the behaviours required to enable transformation will take time to cultivate and will have to happen in both a formal and informal sense at every level of leadership.

See also The role of experience in evidence-based practice


[i] Janet Houser and Kathleen Oman, Evidence-Based Practice: An Implementation Guide for Healthcare Organizations (J & B Learning International: London), p. 37.

[ii] Cheryl B. Stetler and others, “Leadership for Evidence-Based Practice: Strategic and Functional Behaviours for Institutionalizing EBP”,

See also: Houser and Oman, p. 49.

[iii] Stetler and others,



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