I got into a discussion online on that age old question as to whether a leader needs to be a specialist in the technical areas worked on by the team they are leading.

I certainly know at first hand several situations where a generalist took over a department and did a better job than their predecessor who was a subject matter specialist. One case I was involved with was where a senior manager in a police force with responsibility for all vehicles retired. He was considered by all and peers on other forces to really know police vehicles and the specialist technology they use. The person who took over the role was a generalist manager/leader and things worked better under his watch. There were many reasons for this which I won’t go into, but one of them was that the new boss had to let his experts get on with their job without trying to understand all the technical nuances.

Lack of knowledge can in a case like that be an advantage, but it does depend on the depth of knowledge on the team bench.

Damage is often done with promotions placing specialists in leadership roles. It would hopefully not happen if the question “what kind of a leader do they need?” is asked. Asking that question solves the problem rather better IMHO than asking if leaders should be a specialist or not.

Notice that this question does not rule out the specialist savvy manager/leader. It focuses on what sort of leader would be wanted and therefore presumably would be a leader who would be followed by the team. Specialist knowledge of the team activities may or may not be a success factor for that leader, but each time and for each team it would be different. Trying to generalise something that is not so simple is a red herring 🙂

One way I like to look at this is thinking of leadership /management as a service provided by the manager to their team. The team is the arbiter of the quality of the service. They will decide if the service is any good and if it is, they will volunteer their discretionary effort. If not, they won’t. So for a given team, who can provide the type and style of management/leadership service in a way that will engage the team and extract, in the nicest way, that discretionary effort?

What kind of leader do they need?

My best wishes, Paul


Paul Matthews – Speaker/author/Consultant on Informal Learning, Management and Leadership.