The image is powerful: a giant pipe with millions of leaders spewing out the end. Unlimited leadership talent for decades ahead!


Leadership pipeline is a popular term in management circles today and consultants and leadership thought leaders have jumped on the bandwagon to make sure they are speaking on this cutting edge issue. In fact, Google lists 7, 780,000 on the topic of leadership pipelines.

There is no question that organizational leaders are concerned, and rightfully so, about the current state of talent. The scarcity of talent is well documented. As organizations observe the decreasing talent pool, they realize this talent gap equally applies to leadership. For example Right Management reported that only 13% of surveyed organizations believed they have ample leadership talent to cover their future needs.

What is a leadership pipeline? Is it a new innovative way to develop leadership talent around next century leadership skills? No! It is simply a more sophisticated title for a slightly more systematic approach to the same old and outdated leadership development process that has failed over the past decade. (Of course trainers and consultants have done pretty well! Organizations and participants, not so much.)

Leadership Development is Not A Pipeline! The image conjured up by the term leadership pipeline is disturbing. It implies quantity over quality. It reinforces the notion that leadership development is an assembly line. It is built on the sad and faulty notion that any and everyone can be a leader. (Think about how that notion developed. Hoards of people are scheduled for an organization’s leadership development program in a frantic attempt to find a participated in these faulty programs find out that the organization that put them through the training still assesses them as deficient in leadership skills. They realize they will never be entrusted with a leadership position in that organization. All that investment of time and money has to be rationalized and morale cannot be damaged so the organization tells people that everyone is a leader and everyone can lead in the position they currently hold. Now even more people can participate in the leadership pipeline. No wonder trust is at an all time low!)

If leadership development is not a pipeline, what is it?
This weekend I was facilitating a not for profit board retreat. When I went to breakfast at the hotel there was a heated dish of half-moon cheese omelets, probably twenty to twenty-five in the dish. When I looked at them I thought about the made to order omelets created just as I specified that are available at some hotels. Then it dawned on me that this was a picture of what is wrong with leadership development.

Current leadership development efforts take a microwave approach to development. Put people thought a quick week of training, expose them to high doses of the latest academic theory and buzzwords, and serve them up as instant warmed-up leaders. The problem is that leaders do not develop depth from intense exposure to leadership topics, books, posts or even videos and that kind of training does not allow the concepts to “blend into and shape a person’s character.
Leadership development is not a required list of topics that one can be checked off on the way to instant leadership. Leadership development is not receiving a certificate with the company president’s mimeographed signature at the end of a training program.

True Leadership development is like a crockpot. First, it takes time to produce the product. Second, it takes coming in contact and in-depth exposure with a group of varied ingredients that blend together and influence each other so that a unique combination is created. (Think about one example – leaders do not communicate in isolation. They communicate to inspire, motivate, correct or solve problems. Teaching communication in a three-hour block is not even close to the reality the leader faces on the job). Third, It takes the heat of real situations to drive the learning home. It is this heat that allows the exposure to other ingredients to flavor the leader and become a genuine (dare I say authentic?) part of him or her. This develops the leaders own unique style and approach. Fourth, It takes a master chef who oversees bringing all these ingredients together to create the finished product. Finally if takes seasoning from that master chef who stops periodically and gauges how seasoned the “product” is becoming and adjusts that seasoning as needed.

Leaders are not produced like double cheeseburgers in a MacDonald’s. They may be warmed up leaders when the microwave timer goes off but they are not genuine leaders. Rather leaders must be uniquely developed and that takes time at the side of a seasoned leader; it takes the opportunity to struggle; and it takes time to interact with multiple different variables and ingredients.

Unless we discard the faulty notion that future leaders can be mass-produced and that quantity of leaders coming out of a pipeline is better than the deep development of quality leaders, we will continue to succeed in developing people who are skilled at critiquing those in positions of authority over them (with the corresponding decrease in trust and respect that comes with the criticism). We will also continue to experience a scarcity of what companies and individuals are looking for – one of a kind, genuine and authentic leaders.

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