Effective Leaders Don’t Need to Be Specialists

Some folks wonder whether or not it’s true that a good leader can manage anyone—even someone doing a job the leader doesn’t understand or someone with skills the leader doesn’t have. And, if it’s true, how is it possible?

In fact, leaders are often responsible for individuals who perform tasks the leader may never have personally done. This is why you sometimes hear of managers and executives who successfully change jobs from one industry to a completely different one. How is this possible, you ask? First, leaders often coordinate activities of highly skilled, mature employees who are often capable of  working with little supervision.  Second, leadership is primarily a people activity. If a person has good people skills such as the ability to motivate, communicate, and listen, then that person has the most important attributes of being a good leader, regardless of the type of work being done by direct reports.

If an employee is working in a specialized job with which his or her manager has had little or no experience, that manager can still help that employee achieve top results by listening to find out what that person needs to successfully do the job and working to meet those needs. In addition, a good leader can be a sounding board for ideas and can help talk through problems. A leader can also represent the importance and value of the person’s work to others within the organization.

In short, an effective leader must be resourceful.  Remember, a common definition of management is “getting things done through others.”

This description of a good leader differs from the popular image held by many people.  The effective leader or manager is not an all-knowing, multi-talented “super worker.”  I’m glad to report that this stereotype is on its way out. We don’t need leaders who are good at everything—we need leaders who are very good at a few things, such as helping workers get what they need to complete their jobs or being adept at coordination throughout an organization.

Peter Drucker, one of the top leadership gurus, claimed that the best model for tomorrow’s organization is that of a symphony orchestra.  In such an organization, a single person—the conductor—coordinates the performance of hundreds of specialists. The conductor communicates directly with each musician and can tell the musician what is needed to achieve the right combination of sounds without knowing how to play the tuba or the drums.

Effective leaders must know and be able to communicate what is expected.  They provide the big picture.  They don’t need to know exactly what must be done by specific individuals or departments to achieve those expectations.  Effective leaders set goals and then translate those goals for others using clear communication. This ensures that the number of management levels between the CEO and those doing the job will not need to increase.  Many organizations today have fewer layers of management and wider spans of control for leaders than typical hierarchies in the past.  Increasingly, organizations will become loose-knit clusters of specialists who are served by their leaders.

Remember: Leaders are more likely to be effective at managing anyone if they have or develop the skills that are related to people and not specifically to a job or profession.

3 thoughts on “Effective Leaders Don’t Need to Be Specialists

  1. Very interesting thoughts here – it is correct to say they contrast with the typical image of ‘bosses’ who know it all. Arguably, leaders operate better if they DON’T know the intricacies, enabling them to remain uninvolved and focused on the bigger picture?

    It is this aspect of leadership that I discovered last year studying for an ILM qualification. Hope to continue developing it as I commence my MBA studies. And work on my people skills!


  2. Kenneth:

    Thanks once more for bringing out this myth to light. Many of us are trained in the belief that one must start from being a technical specialist before being promoted to leadership, or should I say management. Just to add a support: I have noticed that the best football coaches (yes, I am a fun of soccer) are not necessarily former best players. When they tried Maradonna (Argentina) or Van Basten (Holland)- and more examples- the former great players can never make great coaches, who are the leaders/managers.

  3. In my view, leaders need to understand the job that their subordinates do and the importance of the same. The difference between a good conductor and a bad conductor is the ability of the good conductor to direct the right notes. If a leader is adept at coordination in an organization, but does not understand the importance of his direct reports’ job, he will end up being a bad conductor. While, there are multiple instances of people moving industries basis their leadership skills, few have been successful. That’s because majority dont understand the right notes in the new industry and proceed to conduct business as per their last symphony. While, Leadership may be generic, however the ability to understand the business and the right buttons to push remains an elusive skill- hence, we have very few leaders who truly make a difference in an organization or in peoples’ lives.

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