Expert leadership or leadership by experts?

by John Kananghinis

What differentiates a leader from a mere politician or subject matter expert?

Politician. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English; a person whose job is concerned with politics, especially as an elected member of a legislature.

Leader. A person who leads a group of people, especially the head of a country, an organisation, etc.

Expert. ​A person with special knowledge, skill or training in something.

In our world it is not really possible to be a leader without being a politician, of some stripe. However it is entirely possible to be an expert, in any number of disciplines, and be neither a politician nor a leader.

Practising politicians and leaders can benefit from a specific set of skills in which the politician and/or leader may be expert, but to be an expert politician is a discipline all of its own.

What differentiates a mere politician from a leader is the ability to inspire group action and loyalty. Leaders are want to share expansive visions and to harness resources in the pursuit of an end, hopefully a good one, but history tells us not necessarily so. Leaders galvanise the masses to great feats and sometimes great folly. They take the difficult decisions that will drive the delivery of their vision.

Experts, particularly of the bureaucratic and academic kind, are necessarily narrow focused. Concerned with the detailed understanding of their topic and like as not to be exceedingly conservative and cautious, being that they are so well versed in the myriad permutations that influence outcomes in most fields of scientific and social endeavour.

Wise leaders value the counsel of experts. They assess the information provided and weigh it against all influencing factors. They strive to arrive at decisions that are both founded on fact and on their assessment of the likely impact and outcome.

Not an easy task and often thankless and, even more often, subject to inexpert and prejudiced criticism. Criticism that in a social media obsessed world is all the more instant and shrill, yet even less informed.

A mere politician may react by reflecting the baying of the mob to seek cheap affirmation. A mere politician may also abrogate responsibility for taking difficult decisions on the basis of acting solely on the advice of experts. An expert leader will apply knowledge, experience, judgement and insight to arrive at decisions best for both current and future benefit and will possess the skills to carry the masses.

Being a leader is a risky business. Being an expert is much safer. The questions are: what would we have achieved without risk and what will we lose without leadership?

BTW. Captain James T. Kirk of the Federation Starship Enterprise was the undisputed leader of his crew. In the image at the head of this piece he is surrounded by experts. From left; Frist Officer and Science Officer Spock, Navigator Chekov, Communications Officer Uhura, Helmsman Sulu and Chief Engineer Scott.

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