Leaders may or may not be subject matter experts in their given field. I was rarely, if ever, the smartest person in the room when working with my teams. A leader’s primary responsibility has to be to provide a compelling vision of a better future for their particular area of responsibility (team, division, organization, country, etc.). This has to be a vision that attracts others who believe that the leader has the ability to bring it to fruition. Thus, the leader needs to influence others to follow them. Leadership expert John Maxwell has often said that “Leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less”.
Why do I say that the leader may not be a subject matter expert in their area of responsibility? That seems to go against what I have previously written that we want our leaders to have both competence and character. Wouldn’t a leader need to have an understanding of the area they are leading in order to be competent, and earn the trust of their followers?
Yes, leaders need to be able to learn all they can about the area they are leading so that they can effectively communicate with their team members and help them to solve problems. If the leader isn’t able to understand a subject area, their team members will lose confidence in them, and they will not be an effective leader for that area. For example, it would never have been a good idea to have me lead a team of software developers. It would have been a disservice to assign me as their leader.
Over my nearly 38-year career at a Fortune 50 organization, I worked almost exactly half of my time in two very different departments (Administrative Services and IT). And, within those two departments, I would get a new team in a new area of the department every few years, either because I chose to move or because our leader chose to rotate leaders. Those areas varied from building maintenance, printing and electronic communications to data security, training development and project planning. Although I would do my best to learn the subject matter of those areas, often getting involved in related professional organizations, I knew to rely on the professionals in those areas who would know much more about their work than I ever would.
A leader has to demonstrate humility, a key attribute for any leader, and acknowledge that they are not the smartest one in the room as they join a team in an area that they are not familiar with. I realize that this may not be easy for some leaders. When moving to a new area, I would make it a practice of spending much more time listening than speaking in team meetings. I learned to ask good questions to aid in my learning. I would heavily rely on my team leads until I learned enough – through attending meetings, completing professional education classes and certifications, etc. – to add value to the team. And even after I learned the basics of an area, I always worked closely with my team leads in providing leadership.
So, leaders aren’t always going to be the smartest people in the room. They don’t have to be subject matter experts. To be an effective leader, demonstrate humility, work hard to learn your new area and work closely with your experienced team members as you provide leadership.
What other suggestions do you have for leaders when they move to a new team or organization?