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.
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.
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.
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.
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.