Understanding the Leadership Pipeline

The Leadership Pipeline is a concept from a book by the same name, originally written in 2000 by management consults Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter and James Noel. It was recommended to me by an international pastor who said it was one of his top 5 favorite books. After reading it for myself, I immediately made it required reading in my organizational leadership courses.

“This is an era in which the demand for leadership greatly exceeds the supply,” the authors write. “What’s needed is an approach that will allow organizations to keep their own leadership pipelines full and flowing.” Hence the Leadership Pipeline, a series of seven potential levels of leadership, from Leading Self (doing the work) to Enterprise Leader.


The larger the organization, the more levels of hierarchy, and the more clearly delineated the “pipes” or functions at each level. For example, a church might include service volunteers (Leading Self), lay leaders (Leading Others), paid staff overseeing a ministry area (Leading Leaders/Functional Leader), pastoral staff (Group Leader), and a senior pastor (Enterprise Leader). Conversely, a solo pastor may need to fulfill multiple functions, including Leading Self, Leading Others, Leading Leaders, and Enterprise Manager.

Navigating each “turn” in the pipeline requires a potential leader to change what they value and how they spend their time, and many leaders get stuck trying to negotiate these turns. For example, most ministry leaders first enter the ministry because they enjoy hands-on work with a congregation or age group. But to move from “Leading Self” to “Leading Others,” leaders must change their priorities and perspective in order to spend most of their time and energy developing other leaders, instead of doing the hands-on ministry.

In addition, each turn in the pipeline requires a broadened perspective and vision horizon. People who are Leading Self only need to be aware of the work directly in front of them. Functional Leaders, on the other hand, need to be aware of how their ministry area relates to other ministry areas within the overall organization. Enterprise Leaders must see not only within their organization, but also how their organization relates to the outside world and to potential challenges and opportunities, both now and in the future.

The book provides greater detail about the challenges with each turn, as well as “pipe unclogging” moves to help leaders successfully move to the next stretch in the pipeline, but here are some key applications for churches and ministry leaders:

  • It is critical that churches have some sort of leadership development system or pipeline by which they are recognizing and growing leaders.

  • Success in one segment of the pipeline does not automatically translate to success negotiating the turn to the next segment; there must be intentional effort to learn and grow into effectiveness at the next level.

  • In a large church, most paid staff will have to give up “doing the work” and focus on developing other leaders.Anyone who serves as an Enterprise Leader (generally those who might be considered “senior leadership”) must set aside regular “think time” as a primary part of their job responsibilities. But this can be especially difficult for leaders in smaller organizations, where everyday urgent work often crowds out any time for this important function.

I am working on a webinar that covers the important concepts of The Leadership Pipeline in much greater detail, with application for churches and ministry leaders. If you want to stay in the loop about webinars and other resources, please be sure to subscribe for email updates.

At which level(s) of the Leadership Pipeline do you think you currently function?
What do you need to learn in order to negotiate the turn to the next level?
How can you help those below you on the pipeline successfully negotiate their turns?

Angie Ward