The Surprising Challenge Of Building a Leadership Pipeline

AdVance Leadership » The Surprising Challenge Of Building a Leadership Pipeline

Welcome to Friday 411, issue #017. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you’ll discover how one definition will help build your leadership pipeline.

1 Insight

Your organization will struggle to develop leaders until you define what a leader is.

Recently, we worked with a company to evaluate their leadership pipeline. A leadership pipeline is a system that prepares potential leaders for future leadership roles. We asked three senior executives to write down the name of one employee who embodied leadership. Then, we asked each of these executives to describe what made their person a leader.

The CEO described Johnny. “Johnny is an amazing leader. He takes charge of a situation and gets stuff done. His team knows not to slack off. He keeps his foot on the gas, and they always complete the job.”

The Chief People Officer said, “Amy is a great leader. She never complains. She’s always willing to help and consistently comes through. In fact, she works many weekends to accomplish projects.”

The COO described Dan. “Dan has an amazing vision for how his division needs to change in the future in order to stay ahead of trends.”

Not only did each executive name different individuals, but they also conflicted in their understanding of what it means to be a leader.

  • Johnny never slacked off and pushed his team hard.
  • Amy accepted extra responsibility and worked beyond office hours.
  • Dan had a clear vision for his team.

It didn’t surprise us that this company struggled to develop leaders.

The Challenge

It will be difficult for your company to develop leaders if you can’t agree on what a leader is. Socrates said, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.”  Failing to define what a leader is causes three problems.

Problem 1: Disagreement

Failing to define leader results in disputes over who the future leaders could be in the company. These unaligned perceptions make it difficult to develop an employee’s leadership potential.

Problem 2: Wasted Resources

Developing leaders can be expensive. You will waste significant resources training the wrong people if you don’t agree on what a leader is.

Problem 3: Poor Promotions

Companies often make two mistakes when it comes to advancement: promoting (1) the longest-tenured person or (2) the most skilled person. When you don’t agree on what a leader is, you’ll promote the wrong person to the position. Few things do as much damage to a team as promoting the wrong person into leadership.

Avoiding Ambiguity

Defining leader is one of the four building blocks to developing leaders at your company:

But creating a definition of a leader is not easy. That’s why most companies skip this step.

Perhaps the most famous definition of leadership comes from John Maxwell: “Leadership is influence.” That’s a great phrase for one of his keynotes and books. But a definition this simple won’t work for your leadership pipeline. Something this ambiguous will continue to create confusion.

For example, the CEO described Johnny as a great leader who “gets the job done.” But as we pressed further, we discovered that Johnny got the job done because he used fear and bullying to intimidate his team. Johnny had a high turnover rate with his staff. Once the CEO realized this, he decided that Johnny wasn’t the type of leader he wanted to replicate.

Jill had influence because she was nice to everyone. In fact, when she was asked for help, she never said no. Unfortunately, she didn’t get anyone else on her team to do the work. She did all the work herself. We asked the executives if Jill represented the leaders they want for their company. They quickly answered, “No.”

Joe had influence with his team because of his vision. But he struggled to turn that vision into a reality because he didn’t like to get bogged down in details. We asked the executives if that was their definition of a leader. Again, they answered negatively.

The Solution: Defining Leadership

While there’s no perfect definition for a leader, here’s how we define it at AdVance Leadership:

A leader is someone who sees a clear, preferred, and desired future, who gathers others around that future, and who mobilizes others to create that future.


Let’s break down three facets of being a leader.

  1.  A leader sees a clear, preferred, and desired future.

Leaders must focus on the future. They must see further into the future than the people who they lead. This quality is often called vision. That vision must have three features.

Feature  #1: The vision must be clear.

Haddon Robinson, a preaching professor, once said, “If a sermon is a mist in the pulpit, it will be a fog in the pew.” The same is true for leadership. It must be clear to the leader and to those the leader is leading. If the leader is not crystal clear on the vision, it will be impossible for others to see it clearly.

Feature #2: The vision must be preferred.

The future vision must be better than the present reality. Approximately 84% of people don’t easily adopt change. If the future is not better than the present, employees will avoid the work necessary to complete it. It must be preferred to the current situation.

Feature #3: The vision must be desired.

There’s a difference between a preferred vision and a desired one. A preferred vision makes people want to change. But a desired vision means that they will act on it – that they will work to turn the vision into reality because it is what they want.

For example, the first-ever recorded pizza delivery occurred in 1889. For over a century, millions of people have thought, “I don’t want to make dinner tonight, but I don’t feel like pizza. I wish that I could have my favorite restaurant food delivered to my house.” Most people preferred that reality. But only a few people desired it so much that they turned that future into a reality by creating Grubhub in 2004.

  1.  A leader gathers others around that future.

Leadership doesn’t stop with a vision of a better future. Leaders must assemble others who want to make that vision happen.

It’s a common misconception that all good leaders are charismatic and winsome. Those personalities often gather others around their charm – not around a preferred future. Charisma alone won’t make someone a leader in your company. True leaders get others interested and bought into the vision.

  1.  Leaders mobilize others to create that future.

Leaders don’t simply inspire people. Inspiration leaves people feeling warm and fuzzy. But inspiration doesn’t last long.

Instead, leaders mobilize people. They move them to action to create the future together.

Ultimately, leaders must get results.

  • Football coaches must win.
  • Nonprofit leaders must benefit society.
  • Business leaders must increase revenue and profitability.

As a society, we hold leaders accountable for the results they achieve.

If you are going to develop the leaders around you, you must define what a leader is. Your organization’s definition might differ from ours at AdVance Leadership. But taking the time to define and agree on a definition enhances your organization’s ability to develop the leaders you need to succeed.

1 Action

Schedule time with your team to define and agree on what a leader is in your company.


Want to help your company unleash its leaders?

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