Can You Be a Great Leader without Technical Expertise?

Millions of words have been written on the subject of what qualities great leaders possess: effective communication skills, intelligent ability to delegate, deep problem-solving ability, and high charisma, among other factors. And if you look at examples of the best leaders, they do indeed embody these qualities. But if you look a bit closer, you may notice something else about the best leaders—they often come from a background of technical expertise in the domain in which they are currently operating. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Art Markman reemphasizes the understated significance of technical expertise in leadership.

The Return of Hard Skills

Markman notes that several of the great leadership qualities described above are actually dependent upon technical knowledge. For instance, how effectively can a tech leader communicate if his or her knowledge of tech begins and ends with “Microsoft is the one that doesn’t have the Apple logo”? Granted, that is an extreme case, but the point stands. Likewise, a leader cannot effectively contribute to solving a technical problem if the leader’s knowledge on the subject is cursory at best.

Markman takes this logic a step further and says that even surrounding oneself with people who do have the technical expertise is not enough. He believes this because the leader is not educated enough to know if these technical people’s opinions are even the right ones to be hearing. Personally, I think this is going a little too far, in that at some point a leader just has to trust his people’s judgement—and why hire people if you are just going to disregard their perspective? But I do agree it would be difficult for a non-technical leader to choose between competing experts’ solutions, should such a situation arise.

At any rate, Markman goes on to draw these two conclusions:

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.

Good food for thought. You can view the original article here: https://hbr.org/2017/11/can-you-be-a-great-leader-without-technical-expertise

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