Can you be a great leader without technical expertise?

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.

6 ways high-octane leaders fuel their teams to achieve more (

By: Peter Diamond August 26, 2016


There’s nothing more motivating than working on a team that’s firing on all cylinders. Everything is in sync. The business is moving forward. Tangible success is achieved. People are in a groove and working hard isn’t hard work. It’s seemingly effortless, with no wasted energy. When everyone feels good about the work they’re doing together, even those outside the team can feel a palpable difference. Something special is happening. It’s contagious, and people want to be part of it. What’s their secret sauce? And how can you get it for your team? Over the past three years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of marketing professionals to discern how teams operate and why some are higher-functioning than others. During these interviews, people freely share how they feel about teams and their leaders. Surprisingly, people’s candor always points optimistically toward improving performance — even if the team is struggling. High-octane leaders possess and consistently exhibit six attributes that bolster team performance.

  1. Engaged. The most inspiring leaders set a clear direction and fully commit to making their teams successful. They have a grip on the issues and understand what people need, without micromanaging. When asked, these leaders slow down and make themselves accessible to provide productive counsel. They know the importance of being present both physically and emotionally. It’s subtle, but team members are keenly aware when a leader puts the team’s best interests ahead of her or his own.
  2. Inclusive. True leaders create a supportive culture rooted in trust. Differing views and perspectives are valued and welcomed. They understand the importance of complementary skills and varied approaches to problem-solving. In fact, they go out of their way to create a diverse team. They eschew egos and drama because they know how divisive those distractions can become. Everyone feels heard and respected. Most important, these leaders stay focused on the business and rise above office politics.
  3. Relationship-building. The best leaders align themselves with the team and recognize they must work alongside others to be successful. They knock down any walls or silos, cultivating deep relationships within the organization. They’re equally adept at building long-lasting ties with clients and external partners. They unselfishly offer help and solutions to fix problems even if those difficulties reside outside their purview. They realize isolationism restricts what a team or organization can achieve. They prefer an open-source approach that welcomes others and creates great opportunities for success.
  4. Timely. Successful leaders don’t dilly dally with decision-making. They understand time is precious, and they don’t want to waste it. They know when it’s appropriate to focus quickly on key issues. This allows them to move forward even in the face of uncertainty. In fact, it’s a hallmark of this management style. Leaders take responsibility for keeping projects and initiatives on track. They’re confident when they must rely on their intuition because they’re not afraid to take reasonable risks. If all the data isn’t available, their teams still make good progress together and have faith in their shared direction.
  5. Forward-thinking. Leaders want their team members to be successful, too. They take seriously their role to ensure team members are growing and evolving. Long-term success is linked to the strength of the team’s capabilities. This includes opportunities for continuous education and management training as well as rotating people in positions or expanding their individual responsibilities. They know good people will move on to another role, but they’ll always have the connection and open door to work together in future.
  6. Appreciative. It’s hard to say enough about the power of a simple “thank you.” And even more can be said about acknowledging a person’s true character and the impact he or she has on the team. Leaders who make the time to connect on this level endear themselves to everyone in their sphere of influence. People want to feel good about what they are doing and the contributions they make. Team members remember how they were treated. They’ll move heaven and earth to help without question when needed.

Teams live or die on a leader’s ability exemplify these six attributes. Not only did I strive to put these into practice when I was leading teams for more than 15 years, I’ve witnessed marked differences among leaders who employ these behaviors and those who don’t. Ineffective leadership ultimately has a direct impact on business results, morale, turnover, growth and innovation.

6 truths on why introverts make great leaders (

By: Jeff Boss October  02, 2016


It’s rare that you see the words “introvert” and “leader” in the same sentence. After all, the common perception is that extroverts make great public speakers and are excellent networkers — two things CEOs and organizational leaders must be — and that introverts are not. In fact, a poll conducted by USA Today cited 65 percent of executives who believed introversion to be a barrier to leadership.  Interestingly, the same article highlights that roughly 40 percent of leaders actually are introverted — they’re just better at adapting themselves to situational demands. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Charles Schwab are just a few “innies.“ If you are considering starting a business but don’t consider yourself a social butterfly, here are six truths about introverts that you should know about:

  1. Introverts are prudent.

Unlike their extroverted counterparts who are more sensitive to rewards, which explains why extroverts are more pre-disposed to risk-taking, introverts take a circumspect approach to chance. This is why you hear extroverts say things such as, “Let’s just do it!” whereas introverts prefer to ask, “are we sure this is the right thing to do?” Why is knowing this an entrepreneurial advantage? Risk-taking is a rite of passage for any founder yet can often feel awkward. You may vacillate between yes and no, go and no-go while you weigh different options. Now you know why. Recognizing how you’re predisposed to decision-making is how you improve, and entrepreneurs make impactful decisions every day. Second, while every start-up necessitates some risk to propel it forward, it also requires prudence in capital and resources.

  1. Introverts learn by listening.

Rather than the flashy chit-chat that defines social gatherings, introverts listen intently to what others say and internalize it before they speak. They’re not thinking about what to say while the other person is still talking, but rather listening so they can learn what to say. Along the same lines, introverts share a common love of learning, according to bestselling author and founder of Quiet Revolution, Susan Cain. They are intrinsically motivated and therefore seek content regardless of achieving an external standard. How’s that for a performance standard?

  1. Introverts leverage their quiet nature.

Remember being in school and hearing the same kids contribute, until shy little Johnny — who never said a peep — chimed in? Then what happened? Everyone turned around to look in awe at little Johnny actually talking. This is how introverts leverage their power of presence: they “own” the moment by speaking calmly and deliberately, which translates to a positive perception.

  1. Introverts demonstrate humility.

Not to say that extroverts aren’t humble, but introverts tend to have an accurate sense of their abilities and achievements (not to be confused with underestimated). Humility entails the ability to acknowledge mistakes, imperfections, knowledge gaps and limitations — all key ingredients for getting ahead in business and life. Being humble also indicates an openness to hear new ideas or receive contradictory information.

  1. Introverts manage uncertainty.

Since introverts have a lower sensitivity to external rewards than extroverts, they’re more comfortable working with little information and resisting self-defeating impulses. Introverts are also more likely to persist in finding solutions that aren’t initially apparent. Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe Albert Einstein, who said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.” Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first), but finding certainty where uncertainty typically prevails is a huge plus for any entrepreneur.

  1. Introverts are comfortable working alone. 

Even if you start a company through a partnership or joint venture, you will likely find yourself working alone at some point in your career. Introverts prefer working in isolation because it affords the greatest opportunity to focus. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, put it this way, “Most inventors and engineers I have met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They work best when they are alone, and can control an invention’s design. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take: work alone. You’re going to be able to design revolutionary products and features.”

3 questions to ask to determine if you are a good leader (

By: Deborah Mitchell  January 26, 2015


As an entrepreneur, what is your leadership style? I’ve worked for a variety of bosses over the years, all with very different personalities and leadership styles. Some were obsessive micromanagers while others were hands off and provided no guidance as a manager, leaving me to figure out more than a few important things for myself. When you Google leadership styles, one of the first results is courtesy of Wikipedia, which gives the textbook definition of leaders as such: “They range from the grouchy, live-in-fear type of boss, to the merry pack leader who builds a relationship of trust with his subordinates in order to increase productivity.” Further research reveals that good leadership traits include good communication skills, creativity and the ability to inspire workers, all while keeping their staff motivated.

If you are an entrepreneur or plan to become one, ask yourself these three questions and determine what you should do to improve your leadership style.

  1. Are you approachable? 

A company is not measured by the number of employees, but rather, by the employee culture it promotes and the ability of its leader to generate feelings of loyalty and a sense of purpose among his staff. Work performance is more likely to increase when leaders maintain an open-door policy, engage in non-work related conversations, show a sense of humor and stand by their employees when they are facing challenges.

Implementing a better leadership style:

A good exercise in sound leadership is to encourage activities outside the workplace. Activities where the boss joins along — even for an hour — such as training for a marathon, volunteering, taking yoga classes or attending a skill-acquisition workshop are all good ways to be approachable and build team camaraderie. It is also a great way to empower team members and provide them with a sense of purpose other than only focusing on the company’s bottom line.

  1. Have you created a climate of security? 

Creating a climate of security within an organization is a key component to any employee-retention strategy. Bosses should create a bond with employees, often reminding them of their worth and praising them for their performance. In smaller businesses, they should be kept in the loop about upcoming projects and given the sense of security that comes with knowing that they are building their careers on solid ground.

Implementing a better leadership style: 

Adding a personal touch — something as simple as knowing an employee’s name or a personal email complimenting them on a job well-done — can go a long way. If there is a problem or challenging situation at the office, meet with the team in person or send an email to address it. Don’t leave it to your managers to handle.

If your company is very large, employees realize that a true friendship with a boss may not be likely, but they want to feel that their contribution counts or at least is being acknowledged. If you are running a small company, then it’s easy to jump on the phone and talk in person when a job is well done.

  1. Are you leading by example? 

Are you behaving in an unprofessional manner? Employees notice everything, including the behavior and business ethics of their superiors. So if you are cutting corners, lying to employees or clients, or misappropriating funds — you get the picture — your employees have little reason to respect you as a leader. Besides, a sloppy boss will not have enough credibility to criticize a sloppy team!

Implementing a better leadership style: 

A leader should lead by example, be reliable and credible, and care about their reputation as well as the company’s reputation. When it comes to a leader’s work performance, hold yourself to a higher standard –one your team wants to emulate. If employees see you being professional, going the extra mile and/or caring about the work in the way you want them to, then you bet they will want to do the same.