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Are subject matter experts good leaders?

The question can’t be answered without first examining the qualities that make a good leader and there is plenty of opinion about this: search Google for ‘leadership qualities’ and you’ll get over 67 million results. Most lists of the characteristics of good leadership feature the same core attributes (e.g. honesty, empathy, accountability, inspiration, decisiveness); being a subject matter expert rarely appears. Could this be because it’s a given, or because being a subject matter expert is not a requirement of good leadership?

Recently, in discussions with a group of lawyers who have made the transition to senior leadership roles, the topic of lawyers as leaders came up. Like many other lawyer-leaders, this group found themselves in leadership roles because they were at the top of their game as legal experts. It happens all the time: a high achieving salesperson is promoted to sales manager, a skilled technician is promoted to manage the workshop, a top-performing teacher becomes a school administrator.

One of the group of lawyers said “Lawyering has an innate tendency to create people who veer towards quite black and white outcomes. I doubt that it really values team work that much.  It is useful at teaching discipline and intellectual rigour but neither of those things in themselves create good leaders.”  Taking this a step further, to be a good lawyer you must pay attention to detail without being drowned by it and you must have a singleminded focus on the task. Conversely, to be a good leader you need to be more multi-dimensional in your thinking, constantly being clear on your purpose, the process by which you achieve that purpose and the people you have to make those processes achieve that purpose.

So, the attributes that make a good lawyer are not the same as those that make a good leader and the same holds true for other professions and jobs and it goes without saying that the best subject matter experts do not always make the best leaders

The job is easy, people are hard

To be a leader the attributes that are valued in subject matter expertise must be replaced by others. For most subject matter experts in their first leadership role, the first challenge is learning to let go of being a subject matter expert. As one of our lawyers said “Let go of being the technical expert and the need to be involved in the detail. As a leader this is no longer part of your job.”

Hand in hand with this is learning to value the aspects of being a leader that focus on exercising judgement, making decisions, being comfortable with ambiguity and leading the people in your team.

Learning to rely on others to achieve results is often the hardest adjustment that a new leader has to make. As a subject matter expert it’s easy to fall into the “it’s quicker to do it myself” trap but to be a leader you have to let this go, learn to trust people and live with the consequences and frustrations that you can’t do everything yourself. You must be comfortable about creating the space for others to get on with the job and to be ready to accept that mistakes may be made. People don’t grow unless they make mistakes. Give them permission.

But what about credibility?

One of the common points put forward to support the argument that subject matter experts make good leaders is the issue of credibility. The argument is that if a leader is also a subject matter expert, he or she  will be more credible to others in the organisation, will understand the motivations of the core workers, and appreciate the nuances of the working environment.

But this view misses a key point about leadership credibility: no single thing creates credibility. Rather, a combination of things must be in place. “Credibility” comes from the latin work “credo,” which means “I believe” and in simple terms, credibility is the feeling of trust and respect that is inspired in others. Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s research tells us that trustworthiness, expertise, and dynamism are crucial to establishing what they call source credibility and, ultimately, that credibility is the foundation of leadership. Simply stated, without trust there is a lack of leadership credibility and even the highest levels of technical or professional competence won’t fill the gap.


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