by: Issues: May / June 2002. Categories: Leadership.

There is an old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life.” But what happens when there are no more fish to catch?

That is the limitation with training. Successful training ensures that a person will act predictably in response to a given stimulus. Pavlov trained dogs to respond to bells and the provision of food…so well, indeed, that they even salivated when the food was not presented. And B.F. Skinner was able to train chickens to behave predictably with a wide variety of different reward ratios.

I am not arguing against training. People need knowledge and skills to develop the competencies required to do their jobs. But what does this have to do with leadership? Organizations need leaders to be able to assess situations that are frequently complex and seldom identical to past situations. Leaders must recognize patterns without assuming that a situation is identical to one they have encountered before. They must be able to use analogies to make inferences, and figure out what to do when they encounter new situations. In short, they must use and develop their judgment to the point where it becomes wisdom.

In the pursuit of leadership talent, organizations tend to hire for knowledge, train for skills, develop for judgment – and hope for wisdom. When wisdom does not materialize, they are forced to hire it. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with selective hiring, but organizations should hire to enrich their gene pool, not because their internal reproductive system has failed.

When organizations look at their leadership pipelines, the demographic facts of life stare them in the face. Through the last two decades, the severe, short-lived recession and painful downsizings of the ‘80’s taught them how to stay lean. Out went multiple layers, “assistants-to” and the narrow spans of control that allowed leaders to spend time developing people. Senior executives could boast of personally “managing” 20-30 people – by email. But “lean” turned into anorexic as organizations starved their people of developmental experiences and the counselling of those who had gone before.

Now organizations have 50-somethings with judgment and wisdom, but their 30-somethings have only skills and knowledge. The question is, can organizations accelerate the development of this leadership talent?


In the unending nature-versus-nurture debate about leadership, I stand firmly in the middle. Leaders are “born”; innate leadership talent can be accelerated. But not everyone with skills and knowledge will develop judgment. The challenge of human resource development is to: accelerate the development of high-quality leadership in organizations; increase he yield of mature leaders from the pool of high potentials; and create a pipeline of management talent that delivers leaders where and when they are needed. (While the term “leadership pipeline” has been used by many authors over many years, it is described in greatest detail in The Leadership Pipeline, by Ram Charan, Stephen J. Drotter and Jim Noel; Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2001; also see article, The Leadership Pipeline, by Charan and Drotter, Ivey Business Journal, May/June 2001).

Research in the field of leadership development is not conclusive, but my 25 years of teaching experience leads me to several conclusions:

  • It pays to start with excellent talent. This requires the commitment of senior executives because recruiting the very best prospects is both expensive and challenging. Top performers are the best recruiters of top talent.
  • It pays to channel high potentials into the “right” experiences. Challenging job assignments and well-designed learning programs encourage individual development.
  • Learning does not simply “happen.” “Doing” without reflecting does not lead to learning. When learning is combined with “doing” – the concept of action-learning – the loop is effectively closed. This also happens when individuals receive excellent coaching from caring mentors. It does not happen when high potentials are assigned to supervisors who have no interest or skill in leadership development.
  • Development must be integrated with personal career management and organizational development. It is pointless and expensive to pour money into developing people who have no leadership challenges.
  • There must be “on –” and “off-ramps.” Some high potentials are late bloomers. Others fail to live up to their original promise or decline to commit to their own development.
  • High potentials must be managed differently. They are high-maintenance and their development must be accelerated. They require frequent, in-depth, project-based performance reviews and consistent reassurance that they are high-potentials.


Human resource departments play an important role in leadership development, especially in multidivisional business or conglomerates. The best organizations view leadership development as a treasury function. They centralize ownership of high-potential leaders and their value to the organization, rather than downloading responsibility to the departments where the high potentials happen to be working.

The onus is on the HR Development function to:

Make the connection between corporate and business-unit strategies. When leadership development is disconnected from strategy, the leadership pipeline becomes clogged or sucks air. High potentials leave the organization for lack of opportunities, or the organization struggles to implement strategies without leadership resources.
Integrate critical HR systems around the leadership development challenge, as shown in Figure 2. Common flaws in HR development are: development without succession planning; information systems that are inadequate for inventorying talent and experiences; and assessment and evaluation systems that make no allowance for talent spotting and deployment.
Manage the development and deployment of the infrastructure of leadership development activities, including assessments, evaluations, programs, courses and career tracking.
Advise and consult on individual career plans and developmental moves, working with candidates, supervisors, mentors and top management.
Brief management on developments in leadership thinking.
Seek and evaluate “outside” leadership development resources (e.g., consultants, academics, organizations).
Benchmark development leadership practices against high-performing organizations.


Some 30 or 40 years ago, everyone assumed that great grapes grew only in selected regions of certain countries, and that great wines developed from those grapes as a matter of chance. Vintages that showed promise were left to mature for many years. No longer. As a result of the careful selection, feeding and pruning of vines, yields have increased and maturation periods have decreased. Excellent wines are produced in shorter time frames and in regions of the world previously known only for their “plonk.”

It is no accident that some companies have great leadership bench strength and others do not. That is because some companies work at development leadership. Their senior executives are actively involved in recruitment and selection, development, career-move decisions and other leadership activities. They recruit the best prospects, challenge them constantly, manage them centrally and locally, and utilize the “off ramp” when the candidate wants to abandon the fast track or his or her potential does not match the needs of the organization.

In an increasingly competitive and boundaryless world, leadership may be the only sustainable competitive advantage. That is why leadership should never be left to chance.

About the Author

Jeffrey Gandz is a Professor of Strategic Leadership and Managing Director, Program Design, in Ivey Business School's Executive Development division at Western University.