Unclogging the Leadership Pipeline

Yesterday, a small group of influential women descended on Capitol Hill to encourage Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring Loretta Lynch’s nomination for Attorney General to the full senate floor for a vote. Despite meeting all of the requirements, being highly-qualified and possessing an impeccable service record, the vote to confirm Lynch’s nomination has been postponed in light of competing priorities on the Senate’s agenda. President Obama nominated Lynch in November to replace Eric Holder following his resignation. Four months later, Lynch sits in limbo awaiting resolution of a budget debate.


Resistance and delay are not new to women of color who receive presidential nominations. When Susan Johnson Cook was nominated as Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom in June 2010, her confirmation hearing was postponed so long by the Senate that the session ended in January without a vote. Cook had to be re-nominated in April 2011, at which time she was also confirmed. This was 10 months after her original nomination. There were roughly 5 months between Cynthia Akuetteh’s nomination as Ambassador to Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe. Under the current administration, delayed confirmation has not been limited to women of color. Estimates suggest that President Obama’s circuit and district court nominees have had a longer wait time than that of the 4 previous presidents.

Despite facing political opposition and overcoming personal challenges, more women of color are reaching high level positions in every industry. Yet, I suspect that there may be a clog in the leadership pipeline. Let me see if I can explain.

I attended a conference which shall remain nameless with a mission to connect professional black women around common issues. All the movers and shakers were there, women who were making great strides on behalf of their communities and all Americans. But during the networking sessions, I noticed that the most accomplished women only mingled with each other. When spoken to by people they didn’t know, they were curt, semi-responsive, and disinterested. When asked for advice or questioned about mentoring, they appeared harried and much too busy to answer. Sadly, I’ve seen this scenario play out frequently in similar settings.

Mrs. I-Think-i’m-somebody comes in the room and ignores all the commoners until she discovers that some of the commoners are royalty-with-humility. Then she tucks her tail between her legs and tries to engage. No thank you.

A colleague and I were recently on a business call with an African-American woman who is a newly-minted college president. She was sharp and well-versed, definitely an expert in her field; but what impressed me the most was that she was NICE. She exchanged warm pleasantries, then acknowledged our roles/positions, shared helpful resources, and treated us as colleagues. My respect for this woman quadrupled after that phone call.

Happily, I was pleasantly surprised.

Unfortunately, I was pleasantly surprised.

This lead me to wonder, is it possible that the rate of advancement for women of color in leadership positions is stalled by the attitudes of other women in leadership? Are there attitudes of elitism and exclusion that clog the leadership pipeline? Are certain women invited to the table because of who they know, while others are excluded because they blossomed under bushels? Are some budding women leaders denied the opportunity to glean from their foremothers because they’re not already part of the inner circle?

Members of Zelophehad's Daughters meeting with Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

Members of Zelophehad’s Daughters meeting with Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

The trails that women leaders blaze will be more valuable if they leave a path of breadcrumbs for the women coming behind them to follow. The first step is allowing others to get close enough to glean.

Author and motivational speaker Valorie Burton taking a moment to speak with members of Zelophehad's Daughters about their anti-trafficking rally.

Author and motivational speaker Valorie Burton taking a moment to speak with members of Zelophehad’s Daughters about their anti-trafficking rally.

This is not a call for voyeurism, for erased or breeched boundaries, or a request to become BFFs. It is, however, a challenge to be warm, welcoming, respectful, lest some eaglet be so offended by a closed, rigid demeanor that she resolves to live in the nest she has already outgrown rather than spread her wings and learn to soar.

How do you practice a healthy model of leadership by engaging the next generation or making space for those on the periphery?

One thought on “Unclogging the Leadership Pipeline

  1. D'estiny Joy says:

    I could not agree more! I think this blog post addresses the core issue in the workforce and that African American’s/ Minorities most often struggle to reach their greatest potential because of a lack of support. This has been often illustrated in the resistance of Congress toward President Obama throughout his presidency, and now again in his decision to nominate an African American woman to replace U.S. AG Eric Holder. I hope this makes sense but what makes this thing worse is I can only imagine the number of African American Congressmen/women who were bought off to hold up her confirmation/swearing in.
    It’s interesting I was just having a conversation with one of my colleagues/friends earlier this week discussing this same exact issue. I think that women of Color who have already reached their peak in their career, or achieved whatever it is they were looking to accomplish in their career should pay more attention to those who are coming behind them. Their should be more MENTOR’S who are willing to say, well when I started out, I had to go through this but this is how you avoid it.
    I think you can practice a healthy model of leadership basically by being open to mentorship, establishing continuous public forums on professionalism and how to advance as a minority within a minority in the workforce, more dialogue and extending more opportunities for internships, externships, and apprenticeships, and job shadowing. In addition to partnerships between businesses and the community. But I think the most healthy way to serve as a model of leadership is to just be respectful to people, be kind.. It doesn’t take away from your accomplishments, or who you are… Great BLOG post…. I hope this makes sense!

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