OPINION: Fixing the broken leadership pipeline

Author: Michelle Huang, Chair and Interim-GM at Multiethnic Young Leaders NZ

At Multiethnic Young Leaders, we often talk about “building Aotearoa New Zealand’s pipeline of diverse future leaders.” Despite our status as a small island nation of just 5 million people, we are one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, home to over 200 different ethnicities.

Given how diverse we are as a nation, paired with our comparatively small population size, it is imperative that we unlock the full leadership potential of all New Zealanders, particularly those from diverse backgrounds who make up an increasingly large proportion of our population and remain well underrepresented in leadership today. 

To do this, we must build a pipeline of diverse future leaders. This looks like providing visible pathways for potential future leaders to enter traditional leadership spaces, normalising People of Colour in positions of influence, mentoring and empowering diverse young leaders to ensure they have the confidence, experience and resources to step into high profile leadership roles, and ensuring that diversity is the default when it comes to every level of leadership — from youth leadership all the way up to the most visible, powerful and influential roles and decision-making tables across the country.

Simply focusing on one section — often the end– of the pipeline overlooks the many other gaps in the pipeline that result in potential future leaders dropping out before they make it to the final leg of this journey. It oversimplifies the varied systemic, structural and institutional barriers and ceilings that exclude diverse young people from leadership mobility in the first place. Most importantly, it ignores individuals who, due to inequitable access to information, cannot even find their way to the start of the leadership pipeline.

To address this final barrier, Multiethnic Young Leaders NZ is launching the Rangatahi Leadership Opportunities Database (RLOD). The RLOD seeks to make access to youth leadership more transparent, fair, and equitable for all young people in Aotearoa New Zealand. This volunteer-driven kaupapa has the ambitious aim to close the “opportunity divide” and increase the pool of diverse candidates at the start of the leadership pipeline.

Right now, not all young people have equitable access to information on youth leadership opportunities. In particular, students from Decile 1-3 schools miss out on or are excluded from youth leadership opportunities. Youth leadership, which encompasses youth development programmes, youth awards, youth advisory panels, youth conferences and more, offers young people a window into traditional leadership tables and spaces, provides rangatahi with a platform to increase their visibility and impact, contributes to a young person’s confidence, perceived “merit” and perceived “leadership potential,” and exposes them to new ideas, skills and networks.

To ensure that every young person has equal opportunity to reach their full leadership potential in New Zealand, we must eliminate all ceilings and barriers to information that exist for potential future leaders from underrepresented backgrounds. The Rangatahi Leadership Opportunities Database is just one small, but important step, to diversifying the start of the leadership pipeline.

Disclaimer: We recognise that “leadership” and “leaders” exist in different shapes and forms across different cultures, communities and societies. The terms “leader” and “leadership” are used in this piece to refer to traditional Western-centric notions of leadership that remains the default across our major institutions.