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The Third Step to Filling Your Leadership Pipeline

I sat for a minute, taking in what my boss had just told me. Confusion, satisfaction, and a small bit of pride swirled in my head like the morning fog on London street.

These were Bob's exact words. I still remember them decades later. "You may not realize it, but you are already a leader."

Huh? I wasn't a leader. I was just trying to do my job. And I wasn't sure I was doing a very good job at it either. Now all of a sudden we're talking about leadership and he's calling me one? What did that mean? What does a leader even do?

Ah. That's the question every leader asks at some point. What does a leader even do?

Fill the Leadership Pipeline

If you haven't yet read about the first two steps to filling your leadership pipeline, you can find them here and here. The third step isn't the final step by any means, but if you take these three steps you'll be much further ahead than many companies. According to the Center for Creative Leadership almost 60% of leaders receive no training at all.

So what is the third step to filling your leadership pipeline? Show them what a leader does.

Anyone who's taken a writing course knows that showing is better than telling. The same is true in developing leaders. And the best way to show is by giving the potential leader a chance to experience it for themselves.

Once you've identified a potential leader and begun asking them powerful, open-ended questions, you can begin giving them assignments that engage them directly in leadership. Many people call these "stretch assignments." I suppose they are, but I think that term confuses people. Often the tasks that are assigned are far too advanced for someone just starting to think about leadership. It's better to start simple and then slowly become more complex.

One article I read suggested having the potential leader facilitate the next team meeting. Many experienced leaders struggle to lead meetings well. (That's why there are so many horrible meetings in the world, after all.) Assigning this task to someone with little-to-no leadership experience will only frustrate everyone involved.

A better idea is to invite them to lead one small part of a meeting. Here's what you can do. Start by making a list of all the things you do to lead the team meeting. Everything from soliciting agenda items to facilitating discussion to resolving conflict to making announcements. Now put your list in order from easiest to most difficult. This week, assign the easiest task to the potential leader.

Don't, however, just send them an email and tell them to do it. Instead, use the following checklist to set them up for success, even for the most simple leadership task.

Before the Assignment:

  • Give them some instruction on how to do it. Tell them what's expected, mistakes to avoid, and what successful completion of the assignment will look like.

  • Answer any questions they have.

  • Ensure they have the time and tools they need to accomplish the assignment.

  • Check in with them shortly beforehand to see how they are doing.

During the Assignment:

  • Be present. Don't fling them in to the deep end to sink or swim without you.

  • Be supportive. If you need to gently clarify something, do so.

  • Don't take over. Let them make some mistakes. If you've chosen the assignment well, a hiccup or two won't sink the ship.

  • Thank them in front of the group.

After the Assignment:

  • Before giving your feedback, ask them how they thought things went. You'll be surprised at how hard on themselves most people are.

  • Point out what they did well. It's always easier to build on strengths.

  • Don't shy away from corrective input, but keep it to three items maximum. Most humans can only keep three important pieces of information in our heads at one time. If you give them a laundry list of 10 things they did wrong you'll overwhelm them and they'll never be able to remember them all.

  • Give them their next assignment.

If this sounds like a lot of work, well, it can be. But the payoff is well worth it. Over time the process will simply become a habit. When you first learned to drive it was overwhelming. But I bet now you can drive, listen to the radio, and hold a conversation with your passenger without much thought at all. Developing leaders is the same way.

I'd love to hear how it goes. Drop me an email at If you want some help, I'd be happy to explore how I can best serve you in filling your leadership pipeline.

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