Why I too have had enough of experts.
“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts….”Michael Gove, Justice Secretary, June 2016
I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Michael Gove. I rarely find myself agreeing with politicians of any persuasion because I think the UK political system is not set up to handle the big problems of our age (climate change, social care, raging pandemics, etc) but let’s not go down that rabbit hole.
Anyway, in this article I want to consider the matter of expertise as it relates to leadership. I think that the idea of ‘the leader as expert’ was becoming redundant anyway and that Covid-19 has only hastened its demise. This is why I too have had enough of experts …
But to find that our expertise is useless, is unsettling to say the least, and I’ve had a couple of recent conversations with senior leaders who are experiencing that unsettling feeling big time in the current crisis. They’d unwittingly established a leadership culture of ‘bring me the problem and I’ll use my expertise and experience and explain how you can solve it’. Covid 19 has stopped that in its tracks too.
The problem with this approach is that it requires certain conditions to be met which leaders are finding harder and harder to fulfil.
You must know the answer
To lead through expertise requires that you have met the problem before and figured out the answer. Increasingly, in the modern world of work, and particularly since Covid 19, this is very difficult. I’m amused by the tsunami of webinars that have appeared on LinkedIn or similar, on ‘how to deal with Covid disruption’ or similar as if, on some parallel universe, the leaders of these webinars have dealt with it all before and know exactly what to do.
You must be able to convey your answer in a way that makes sense
Even if you have encountered a problem before and figured it all out, how then to get that knowledge and experience out of your head and into another’s? In a way that they’ll understand? This was always difficult, at the best of times, and that’s when we were gathered in the same physical space, using the full range of communication tools.
Our words, our tone and our body language.
Now we have to try and overcome the same communication barriers using Zoom or Teams and no matter how hard their proponents try to convince us it’s the same as the real thing, it isn’t. In fact, there’s a lot of emerging research to say it’s utterly exhausting and exhaustion and communication are not good together.
You must be confident you’re not solving today’s problem with yesterday’s answer.
A lot of leaders developed their expertise in the days when the world was more static; when what they’d learnt ‘on the job’ still applied now they were leaders. Pity, for example, the poor sales leader doubling down on the art of questions and ‘closing techniques’ when their buyers are profiling vendors online and insisting on blind tender responses through an online portal. This is why I too have had enough of experts …
But leaders who know how to coach turned away from all this long ago. They know instead how to communicate in a way that enables people to develop new answers to unique problems.
They know that frontline staff – given that their often nearest to the customer – are best placed to figure out innovative solutions but need support to do so.
When presented with a problem these leaders explore:
- What are we trying to achieve here – what would a successful solution look like?
- What exactly is happening now – who and what is this problem affecting?
- What are our options – what else good we try, what if, what, if , what if?
- Now what – who will take what actions over what time frame?
Why I too have had enough of experts … Covid 19 has ushered out the ‘leaders as expert; model and ushered in ‘the leader as coach’. This may well be one of the few silver linings.