We have all read some endlessly repeated messages about organisations, leadership and knowledge: that management and leadership are separate skill sets from those required in the functions that they serve (or that serve leaders, depending on your preferred viewpoint); that the transformation from expert to leader is a seismic change where there are always concerns about metaphorical leopards' abilities to change their spots, and that – as my own company has said – leadership is not about knowing more, but doing differently.
There are some valuable truths underneath these various assertions: that is, after all, the nature of assertions. But recent research – co-authored by Dr Amanda Goodall of Cass Business School and reported previously on Management Issues – delivers a challenge to the popularity of the generalist manager/leader by re-asserting the role of expertise and of the promoted expert.
While previous coverage focuses on the example of Formula 1 racing teams and the success in particular of Red Bull Racing, Dr Goodall has previously conducted research in other fields, including hospitals and universities, that shows that organisations led by individuals with expertise in their specific fields demonstrate a clear competitive advantage.
At which point, allow me to unpack my own organisation's point as 'not knowing more'. Leadership may not be exclusively about knowledge, but the opposite is certainly not true: successful leadership is not about knowing less. If we apply it to the existing expert, our point is rather that their expertise is probably already sufficient: the step from valued expert to trusted and success leader is not about acquiring additional knowledge but about managing key relationships and adopting key behaviours that serve to inspire others, provide focus and direction and ensure the ongoing health of the larger organisation.
So experts who become leaders are not required to abandon their specialist understanding, but to behave differently to reflect their change of role and change of relationship to those around them.
In taking up a new role, both experts and generalists have transitions to make. The generalist, equipped with an understanding of the requirements of leadership, must develop their understanding of the business, the contributions of its different functional areas, its available and potential talents and its operating environment. For the generalist, we might indeed actually argue that there is a need to know more – not least as an ability to demonstrate this level of understanding will be crucially important in developing and maintaining the trust-based relationships that will sustain not just their leadership but the organisation.
For the expert, the transition is far more concerned with behaviour. At ASK, we define leadership as "a complex set of behaviours that anyone can demonstrate, and a relationship in which a person accepts responsibility for their own fate and for that of others in relation to achievement of the task". This definition certainly does not exclude the generalist, but the expert who has flourished in their previous role through their ability and willingness to use their knowledge to provide helpful insights to those around them may find themselves at an initial advantage.
Another factor is that their pre-existing reputation – particularly in fields such as those studied by Dr Goodall and her colleagues (all of which are arenas in which specialist skills play a critical role in organisational success) – may also give them an advantage in as far as it provides a foundation on which trusting relationships can be built.
Their ability to understand – and to empathise with those below them – can be more readily assumed. Although they must nurture the trust of others in their ability to lead, many promoted experts start their new roles with the comfort of existing respect.
An altogether different industry sector – IT – provides another lesson, in so far as business success can be seen as the successful avoidance of failure. The 'bust' that followed the initial dot.com boom at the turn of the 21st century included examples both of businesses that had undoubted technical prowess but a crucial lack of business acumen, and of businesses that identified potentially lucrative business opportunities but which lacked the expert knowledge to develop in a way that provided either real service or valued utility for their potential customers.
In some cases, expert practitioners were unable to provide appropriate business leadership. In others, effective generalists failed to develop sufficient understanding of the technologies they sought to deploy to develop viable market offerings. But in all cases, the market of potential customers sought effective services or products from companies that they could trust not only to deliver them, but also to remain operational for a sufficient length of time to provide customer support.
Yet any leader – expert or generalist in background – does not run an organisation alone; any organisation that depends on the ability of a single individual will be critically vulnerable. One of the skills of any leader, regardless of professional origin, is their ability to listen to and learn from the key talents responsible for the disparate functions within their organisation. It is not a leader's own talents that they must carefully manage, develop and deploy, but those of the whole organisation.