By: Art Markman November 15, 2017
There is a broad assumption in society and in education that the skills you need to be a leader are more or less transferable. If you can inspire and motivate people in one arena, you should be able to apply those skills to do the same in another venue.
But recent research is rightly challenging this notion. Studies suggest that the best leaders know a lot about the domain in which they are leading, and part of what makes them successful in a management role is technical competence. For example, hospitals managed by doctors perform better than those managed by people with other backgrounds. And there are many examples of people who ran one company effectively and had trouble transferring their skills to the new organization.
Over the last year, I’ve been working with a group at the University of Texas thinking about what leadership education would look like for our students. There is broad consensus across many schools that teach leadership education about the core elements of what leaders need to know. These factors include: The ability to motivate self and others, effective oral and written communication, critical thinking skills, problem solving ability, and skills at working with teams and delegating tasks.
On the surface, this seems like a nice list. Good leaders do have these abilities and if you wanted to create future leaders, making sure they have these skills is a good bet. They need to take in a large volume of information and distill it into the essential elements that define the core problems to be solved. They need to organize teams to solve these problems and to communicate to a group why they should share a common vision. They need to establish trust with a group and then use that trust to allow the team to accomplish more than it could alone.
But these skills alone will not make a leader because, to actually excel at this list of skills in practice, you also need a lot of expertise in a particular domain.
As an example, take one of these skills: thinking critically in order to find the essence of a situation. To do that well, you must have specific, technical expertise. The critical information a doctor needs to diagnose a patient are different from the knowledge used to understand a political standoff, and both of those differ in important ways from what is needed to negotiate a good business deal.
Even effective communication differs from one domain to another. Doctors talking to patients must communicate information differently than politicians reacting to a natural disaster or a CEO responding to a labor dispute. When you begin to look at any of the core skills that leaders have, it quickly becomes clear that domain-specific expertise is bound up in all of them. And the domains of expertise required may also be fairly specific. Even business is not really a single domain. Leadership in construction, semiconductor fabrication, consulting, and retail sales all require a lot of specific knowledge.
A common solution to this problem is for leaders to say that they will surround themselves with good people who have the requisite expertise that will allow them to make good decisions. The problem is that without actual expertise, how do these leaders even know whether they have found the right people to give them information? If managers cannot evaluate the information they are getting for themselves, then they cannot lead effectively.
This way of thinking about leadership has two important implications. First, when we teach people about leadership, we need to be more explicit that domain expertise matters. Just because a person is successful at running one kind of organization does not mean that they are likely to have the same degree of success running an organization with a different mission. Second, when we train people to take on leadership roles, we need to give them practice solving domain-specific problems so that they can prepare to integrate information in the arena in which they are being asked to lead. For example, it isn’t enough just to teach people about how to resolve generic conflicts between employees, we should create scenarios derived from real cases so that people have to grapple with all of the ambiguities that come from the conflicts that arise within particular industries.
This issue is particularly important given the frequency with which people in the modern workplace change jobs and even move across industries. This mobility means that many younger employees may not gain significant expertise in the industry in which they are currently working, which will make it harder for them to be effective in leadership roles. Companies need to identify prospective future leaders and encourage them to settle down in order to develop the specific skills they need to lead.