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Expert-leader

While much has been said and written about the expert- to-leader transition down the years, there is a tendency to view it as modern alchemy: base materials are mysteriously (albeit not always successfully) transformed from base metal into pure gold. I’d beg to differ, not least because this implies that a) base metals must be utterly transformed to have any value, and b) this transfiguration takes place in a flash, as if The Promotion Fairy waves their wand and everyone lives happily ever after.

There is an argument that experts are valued for their knowledge. This is true, but it’s only part of the evaluation: they are also valued for their ability to understand how their knowledge can be applied effectively and their willingness to guide others in grasping, understanding and possibly extending it. Expertise is the seasoning that enables the flavour to be realised: without application, it’s just losing its potency in a dark cupboard.

Part of our definition of leadership is “a relationship in which a person accepts responsibility for their own fate and for that of others in relation to achievement of the task.” Like leaders, experts are fundamentally team players: their value is not an attribute of the wisdom that they carry, but their ability and willingness to pass it on to where it can be of greater benefit.

Wherein lies the objection to the second concern. The change from ‘expert’ to ‘leader’ is less a leap across a gaping chasm, and far more a journey across a bridge to a place with a different viewpoint that requires a different focus. (Or, as a friend succinctly summarised it, “You can’t ride two horses with one backside.”) The traveller does not leave the Land of the Expert as a caterpillar and arrive in the Uplands of Leadership as a butterfly: they will have changed in as much as they have grasped a new focus, purpose and set of working relationships, but they remain at least a version of the same person. (Given that selection for leadership is based on assessments of personal potential, this should actually come as a relief.)

Their new role may involve empowering others more often than being empowered, in providing rather than receiving encouragement, and in creating rather than demonstrating trust, but they remain the knowledgeable, skilled and experienced employee who took the first step on the far side of the bridge. Indeed, their expertise may be a strength in their leadership role rather than a no-longer relevant aspect of a former identity: provided that their expertise has been formed and shaped by an awareness of the bigger organisational and operational picture and of the business’ needs, it may also help to instil the trust and respect of those that they will hence forth lead rather than advise and work alongside. In as much as leadership must be inspirational, an established reputation for wisdom can provide a valuable head start.

If the expert is to make that journey successfully, those caveats must be recognised and the organisation must be prepared to assist them in adapting to new roles and responsibilities. Although aspiration is not a pre-requisite for success, a retained sense of engagement is: in selecting candidates for the step up to leadership, organisations must be mindful that the source of satisfaction for some experts stems from their expertise itself – and that providing reward and recognition for the expert without leadership aspirations is important if their contribution is not to be lost. Expertise cannot be a substitute for leadership, but organisations can help to prepare experts for promotion by providing training or coaching in aspects such as awareness of personal impact, delegation skills and empowering others, building and maintaining relationships.

Providing opportunities for ‘safe’ practise through stretching in-role projects before the ‘transformation’ is complete, and supporting the new leader through executive coaching can also help to ensure that the move to leadership is sustained and successful. Butterflies may be enchanting, but they are also very short-lived: successful leadership comes in many varieties, but none of them are – or should be – quite so ephemeral or fleeting. The aim is to create longevity – of the healthy organisation, rather than specifically of the leader. Transitory fluttering – whether by an expert or a general – serves no lasting purpose.