From expert to leader: grasping the baton

Leaders are a valuable commodity, but are the experts in your business cut out for it? Naysan Firoozmand explores the issue

Leadership takes critical thought and not everyone has it. At various points in the growth of a company, employees or even the person who started the business have to make that fundamental leap: from expert to business leader. There are many reasons that the transition from expert to leader is so common. For employees, it’s usually necessary for one of the following reasons:

  • a focus on promotion from within (maximising informed continuity and minimising ‘churn’)   
  • employees’ desire to progress (especially where they have reached the top rung of their original career ladder)
  • and its flipside – providing career paths that maintain engagement and commitment.

For every reason, there are a thousand articles, management books and blogs about how difficult this transition is. Countering this line of thinking – and, by extension, the arguments in favour of the business generalist – research by Amanda Goodall and colleagues has recently captured headlines by showing superior performance in several arenas (higher education, healthcare and sports teams) where the leadership comes from acknowledged experts. In those fields, leaders can reap the benefits of detailed understanding, empathy and the readily-granted trust of their teams.

Measuring failure

The research we haven’t seen – although it would be welcome – would not only compare failure rates for experts and generalists but also identify their reasons for failing. There are innumerable variables in organisational success or failure: even leadership itself is only one of them, although the wealth of attributes argued as relating to it is vast.

A talented former footballer, Brian Clough was an iconic (and successful) football manager whose success was largely attributable to his ability to inspire the players, albeit something he failed to do during an infamous 44 day spell at Leeds United. In his own words: “Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes.” Though he dismisses strategic thinking, his grasp of performance through people is a critical insight that may have escaped Sir Bobby Charlton, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle, Diego Maradona and others. Expertise can’t guarantee success. Sir Clive Sinclair brought us technology, but no longer-term strategy. His biographer once commented: “The danger is that Clive might go on producing computers because he can’t produce anything else.” Sinclair – who once said “You get more out of people by disagreeing with them” – has frequently foundered on impatience or misapplied determination: ultimately he has applied one of his greatest gifts – miniaturisation – to his own success. Today he works, largely ignored, on electric bicycles. Preston Tucker’s streamlined 1948 Sedan car (something worth Googling) pioneered many safety and engineering features, but was short-lived after a mire of litigation: he underestimated both competitors’ ability to fight dirty and customers’ desire for radical modernity. (A lesson Sir Clive might have pondered before the C5.)

The attributes of leaders

Ultimately, ‘expert to leader’ is the final step in a long sequence. Each stage, requires a new focus and balance of attention: while expertise is valuable, learning agility and self-awareness are more important. Look for candidates who understand what others need from leaders: their new status comes with responsibilities. The fully engaged succeed more often than the highly aspiring: in selecting for promotion, look for evidence of nourishing diet rather than ravishing hunger. No candidate will be perfect: practise will deliver much, but the guiding developmental hand comes in identifying where new skills can be injected and opportunities for safe practise provided. Think of the concert orchestra and the conductor. The players are selected for their skill: punning aside, they know the score. But it’s the baton-flourishing hand that pulls together their contributions to deliver the conductor’s interpretation: the issue is not if they can play, but what and how. Baton skills and knowing the score are part of the conductor’s role, but so too are the relationships with the players, the composer’s intentions and the audience. The former is built in daily practice and behaviour: unlike the final delivery, the relationships beneath it are never really ‘just a rehearsal’. Naysan Firoozmand is managing consultant at leadership consultancy ASK Europe.

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