What is an Expert Leader?

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Photo of Sohrab Salimi
Sohrab Salimi

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14 Minutes

A few months back I (Sohrab Salimi) wrote an article about Catalyst Leadership where I outlined why Catalyst Leadership matters, what key characteristics a Catalyst Leader has, and also how one can become a Catalyst Leader. Many people believe that Agile Leadership is synonymous to Catalyst Leadership. I disagree. Personally, I believe that Agile Leadership is the ability to think and act very differently depending on the context.

A true Agile Leader - from my perspective - is someone who, in addition to being a Catalyst Leader, can also act as an Expert Leader (which this article is about) and an Achiever Leader (my next article ;-)). Why? Because leadership, be it people, products, or organizational is never one-dimensional. In theory, one could argue for a certain type of leadership or management. But in practice, we must realize that based on varying contexts we cannot define one true way to lead employees. Hence, Agile Leadership is about our agility as leaders to inspect and adapt our leadership style based on the situation and challenges we are facing - often referred to as situational leadership.

The ability and skill to demonstrate different leadership styles is key. There is more and more evidence on this. This article will primarily focus on Expert Leadership including its strengths but also its limitations. In addition, it will connect the various leadership styles i.e. Expert, Achiever, and Catalyst, so that you - as our reader - can get a better sense of the big picture. Now, let's dive in.

Why Expert Leadership Matters?

As already mentioned in the introduction to this article, many people in the agile space incl. a ton of "leadership" or "enterprise" coaches believe that an Agile Leader does not lead by expertise, hence does not need to have expertise. I fundamentally disagree. I do not see any organization thriving in this complex world that does not have a leader with deep expertise in that organization's industry or business model.

Let's look at a few examples together. Steve Jobs was deeply knowledgeable about the technology space. In 1976 he was one of three founders that incorporated Apple Inc. Under his leadership Apple defined and redefined what personal computers and personal computing were all about. Elon Musk as another example developed tremendous expertise in each area he worked in incl. finance (PayPal), electric mobility (Tesla), or space exploration (SpaceX). He himself mentions that he spends around 80% of his time in engineering and design - watch the video below for more details on that.

How Elon Musk spends his days

Other examples are Oprah Winfrey from HARPO Productions and Sara Blakely from Spanx. Both developed deep expertise about the industry they decided to move in, talked to many customers, and ultimately built incredibly successful products and businesses based on which they are considered to be some of the best (female) leaders in the world. At the end of this article we will share a few links incl. great podcast episodes with people we mention throughout this article.

Amazon and Google - both tremendously innovative organizations - believe so much in the value of expertise and knowledge that they included having expertise in the Amazon Leadership Principles and Google Manager Behaviours. At Amazon, several leadership principles among them "Customer Obsession", "Dive Deep", and "Bias for Action" can be associated with Expert Leadership. At Google, especially "Has key technical skills to help advise the team" can be clearly associated with Expert Leadership.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not advocating for command and control management or micromanagement. But there is a huge gray zone between this two very autocratic ways of managing people and Laissez-Faire Leadership. As mentioned above, a great leader is able to identify the appropriate style of leadership based on the context they are in. And as a side note, I personally do not believe that laissez-faire is a valid leadership option.

One example I share in my Agile Leader online course is the following: You probably know that I am a medical doctor by background, if not you know now. Imagine me in 2008 as a fresh graduate from medical school. If I had not chosen the path I took i.e. moving into Management Consulting and ultimately becoming a serial entrepreneur, I most likely would have pursued a career as an ER doctor.

So on my first day at the job, I get to know the attending physician i.e. the person in charge of the ER. After a few moments the first patient gets admitted. The came to the ER because they cut their finger and need treatment. Probably, the ER doctor will delegate the treatment of this patient to me. This is something I - despite my lack of experience - should be capable of dealing with.

A few hours later, after having treated a number of patients with minor emergencies, a new patient walks in with all the symptoms of a heart attack: Pain in their left chest, shortness of breath, etc. What would you expect the attending physician in the ER to do? Would you expect them to continue delegating patients to me? Or would you expect them to roll up their sleeves and save that patient's life? That's obviously a rhetorical question.

This situation clearly demonstrates the value of expertise and the value of expert leadership in this particular situation. I believe we can all agree that the attending physician taking care of all patients themself is not sustainable as no other doctor will learn. But the attending delegating all patients to me - despite my lack of experience - would also not be the right thing to do as most likely people would die.

What is an Expert Leader?

An Expert Leader is first and foremost someone who has deep expertise in the area that they are leading. If they are leading a team, they should be deeply knowledgeable about the work this team and the team members do. One example could be leaders in HR or Finance of an organization.

If they lead a product, they should truly understand why this product is being built in the first place. Which customers and problems are being served. Which competitors do we face and how strong is our business model. I personally refer to this as domain knowledge that e.g. any good product owner or product manager needs to have.

If they lead an organization, they should not only understand but shape the mission and strategy of the organization. They should understand how anything the organization does and spends money on deliver on the strategy and the mission. Last but not least, they should be able to diagnose whether the organization is making meaningful progress or not. The expectation is not that any leader does that alone, but they should be aware that all of these are their responsibilities.

The other piece of being an Expert Leader is how that leader acts on a daily basis. What is their first instinct when things go wrong? What type of assumptions do they have about the way they are supposed to lead other people? Do they influence, manipulate, or command their team to take certain decisions?

What are Key Characteristics of an Expert Leader?

Before we jump into the key characteristics of an Expert Leader, let's first start with a bit of a context on why people are or act as Expert Leaders in the first place. Ask yourself, based on what trait or reason are people promoted into leadership positions? In almost all cases it is their expertise in a specific area. For example, the best developer on the development is promoted to be the lead developer, or the best person on the sales team becomes the sales lead. Expertise in a specific domain is the main reason for promoting people into leadership positions.

If you are promoted based on being an expert, what is your assumption regarding people's expectation of you as a leader? You can ask yourself this question. Most likely you assume that it is your job to solve problems as you are the expert. Correct? And this is exactly the behaviour we see from many Expert Leaders. So whatever you read in the next few paragraphs, keep in mind that people in many cases act based on assumptions they have about other people's expectation of them.

In our Certified Agile Leadership training and our self-paced online course for Agile Leaders we characterize a Expert Leaders with the following attributes. A pure Expert Leader...

  • talks a lot from an "I" perspective, which could be based on their ego
  • either does things themselves resulting in a busy schedule or dictates to other people what they need to do and how i.e. exercises their expert power
  • has very little trust in other people, does not listen, and wants to ideally "clone themselves"
  • considers people as problems or problem creators which results in not really valuing an open-door policy
  • meets mainly in 1-on-1 settings as they do not want to foster interaction, co-creation, or collaboration
  • is very focused on tasks and specific activities.
    Most of the things mentioned above sound very negative especially when we aim for leaders that grow people, products, and organizations. But Expert Leaders also have positive attributes particularly the following. Expert Leaders...
  • are smart and very knowledgeable in their area of expertise
  • are very passionate about the work they do
  • are great problem solvers
  • have a ton of energy and are not scared of rolling up their sleeves and getting work done!
Expert Leadership Characteristics

The challenge or the art of leadership is to play the role of an Expert Leader when needed, but also be able to act differently when Expert Leadership does not serve you, your team member, or your organization well. As part of my online course for Agile Leaders, I have created a short video talking about the Expert Leader.

Expert Leader

Who are Examples for Expert Leadership?

As mentioned above there are a ton of great examples for Expert Leadership. We already covered Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk, and Sara Blakely. But be aware, none of them acts as an Expert Leader all the time. If we look at a person like Elon Musk, there is no way he can be a pure Expert Leader while being the CEO of several large companies. In his videos he talks very clearly on how he delegates certain activities especially at SpaceX to the COO, so that he can deep dive on engineering and design.

This short video of Steve Jobs is a great demonstration that while being an expert and very detail oriented, one also needs to trust their employees take many important decisions.

Steve Jobs talks about managing people

At Amazon, another company that values expertise, they implement specific practices and policies to help leaders find a better balance between centralization and decentralization of decisions. One such practice are Type 1 vs. Type 2 decisions. You can study this concept in a great book by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr (two former Amazon executives) called Working Backwards. - Or you can watch the interview I did with Colin recently at the agile100

Colin Bryar about his book "Working Backwards"

How to Evolve as an Expert Leader?

I do not want this section to be about how to not be an Expert Leader. I believe expertise, hence Expert Leadership are valuable to an organization. The question one should be asking is when to apply it (which we will answer next), how to become one, and how to build additional skills in order to improve agility in leadership. Let's start with the question how to become an Expert Leader.

As with anything in life, becoming an expert in an area one needs to put in time and practice. I cannot emphasize this enough. You want to be an expert in engineering, build stuff. You want to be an expert in sales, sell stuff. You want to be an HR expert, become a great recruiter, create career journey, etc. We need to do stuff in order to build expertise in any area.

In addition, we need to study. Read, listen, watch, and participate in workshops in order to learn from people that are experts in your field of work. If you want to be an expert in leadership - and yes, this is also a skill to be mastered - there are a bunch of learning opportunities mentioned at the end of this article. But most importantly, you also need to do stuff. No one becomes an expert at leadership without ever leading people.

The next question is how to expand your skills, how do you move forward, how do you become an Achiever and later a Catalyst leader? One thing I do not advise people to do is to move away from being an expert to being a generalist. It is great and important to have a broad knowledge of many areas especially the higher up one moves in an organization. Rotating through various departments can be a great way to achieve this.

Expanding your leadership skills, which this journey is ultimately about, requires first and foremost the acceptance that "What got you here, won't get you there" (quoting Marshall Goldsmith). Henry Ford is quoted saying "Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?". That might have been a recipe for success a hundred years ago, but it is a recipe for failure in the knowledge and especially in the creative economy.

Building that awareness helps you inspect and adapt on your daily demonstrated behaviors. Do you encourage other people to contribute or do you shut them down consciously or unconsciously? Once you understand how you act, you can make choices to act differently so that you create a different environment. An environment where others feel encouraged, empowered, and valued. I shared a few tips on "7 valuable things Leaders of self-managed teams can do", another article I wrote a few months back.

When to Apply Expert Leadership?

Leadership can be learned in many different contexts. Obviously you can learn leadership at work, but you can also learn the different aspects of leadership as a parent, being part of an NGO etc. Personally, I learnt a ton from being the father of three kids. Why am I sharing this right now, because as parents it should not be our intention to act as Expert Leaders in the long run, but in many cases we need to act as Expert Leaders. Let me tell you why.

Whether to apply a certain type of leadership depends on two things, a) your ability to do it and b) the context. Let's assume you have the ability, how do you decide whether the context requires your to act as an Expert Leader or not. In general I look at four things to make that decision. Those four things are about the people I work with.

Clarity

To what extent do people in our organization have clarity on where we as an organization want to go? If clarity is missing, most probably people won't be able to take decisions that support our organization achieving its goals. If there is a lack of clarity its mostly due to leadership communication or lack thereof. So in the short-term you might need to take the decisions for your team i.e. act as an Expert Leader, but in the long-term you might want to make sure that your team gets the clarity they need to be able to take decisions themselves.

Competence

How competent are our people to take meaningful decisions? This relates to both domain expertise i.e. knowledge about customer needs, competitive landscape, etc. but also general problem solving skills. If we believe our people lack competence it is our job as leaders to first enable them before we can empower them. Being an Expert Leader you can probably judge really well which key competencies your team needs to develop. You can support their growth mentoring them.

Commitment

Are people committed to achieving the organizational goals? Is the team working on the product passionate about their work or are they just logging hours to demonstrate they are being busy? Do we have a group of missionaries or mercenaries? It is a leaders job to ensure an organization has missionaries working there. This is partly based on crafting and sharing a compelling organizational mission and product vision, but also it is based on recruiting and keeping the right people.

This is one of the most important areas to question your own judgement as an Expert Leader. I have seen cases where leaders doubted their teams commitment because everything seemed clear to the leader, whereas the team had many questions. So in reality it was not a lack of commitment, but a lack of context and competence. Be aware of your own biases.

Courage

Are people courageous enough to take important decisions or do they postpone decisions and become too slow? Once people are enabled to take key decisions i.e. they have clarity or as Reed Hastings the CEO of Netflix would say context and they also have competence, it becomes a question of courage whether they are willing to take difficult decisions or not. A psychologically safe environment, a culture of experimentation and dealing with failure are all ingredients in creating more courageous individuals and teams. If people are afraid of punishment they will always play it safe. But if they are hungry for winning and success, they will take risks.

Seek to understand why your team is deferring decisions. If the risk is too high for them, it is your job to either reduce the risk or take the decision for them. As leaders we ultimately have responsibility anyways.

I am sure there are a ton of other questions and models that can help you determine whether and when to apply Expert Leadership. These four have served me well as they also result in concrete action items. Whenever I realize that I need to act as an expert, I can immediately ask myself what needs to be done to change this? Does my team need more clarity, more competence, more commitment, or more courage. Sometimes it's none of those, but the decision at hand is simply my decision to make.

Where Can I Learn More About Expert Leadership?

There is a ton of content to learn from. The list below is by no means complete, but probably a great place to start to transition and expand your management style. Remember, the intention is not to move from Autocratic Leadership to Democratic Leadership, Transactional Leadership, or Transformational Leadership. The intention is to learn from various leadership theories, and upgrade your toolbox so that you have more agility in your leadership.

Learn

If you want to dive deep into the topic of Agile Leadership we obviously recommend our own offerings i.e. our self-paced online courses and the live trainings.

Read

There are many books covering the importance of deep expertise in leading teams, products, and organizations. Some other books can help you learn become a better student of leadership.

Watch

Listen

Contact

Also, feel free to drop us a line if you have any questions or want to develop a larger number of leaders within your organization. You can contact us through team(at)scrum-academy.com.

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