Do Great Leaders Naturally “Bubble to the Surface”?

Or The Fallacies of the Effervescent Model of Leadership

Michael Couch
Michael Couch and Associates Inc.
Pittsburgh, PA

A colleague recounted a perspective from an HR client that said they didn’t think that companies neither needed to assess their leadership talent nor do formal succession planning. Instead, the HR functionary believed that good leaders just “naturally bubble to the surface.”

My colleague and I, as we are want to do, took the concept a little further and decided that this should be called the “Effervescent Model of Leadership Development”. (We considered calling it the “Build it and They Will Come” model but that was taken.) We envisioned a process of bubbling, eruptions, fizzing or other such emissions that magically spewed forth the next generation of leaders. Absurd, yes, but at least it was worth a laugh.

So no, I do not think that effective leaders naturally bubble to the surface, any more than I think that effective business processes occur by spontaneous generation. Effective leadership development has to be much more intentional. It begins by understanding the strategy and direction of the organization. Different strategies demand different leadership capabilities.

Once strategy-critical competencies are identified, then existing pools of leadership talent need to be assessed against those competencies. If leaders are not capable, then they will struggle to deploy the strategy. Any talent gaps have to be addressed by selecting new leaders or developing the existing ones.

When I work with organizations to assess talent, we often find that they have more leadership capacity then they realized. We find capable talent that is not deployed effectively, is reporting to the wrong manager, is not challenged, is at risk of leaving, doesn’t realize they could have greater impact, etc. We do not find much “natural bubbling”. We always find opportunities to significantly improve the organization’s leadership capability by well-planned and executed talent initiatives.

The Effervescent Model of Leadership is sure to go flat (sorry), leave adherents with shortage of leadership talent and little return on their talent investment.