Leading is not being the expert

Leading is not being the expert


I was at Schumacher College at Dartington in Spring 2019 — at a few days of course called “Exploration of Eldering”. We talked a lot about the role of the Elder in our societies and how to be an elder. There was a lot to learn. One thing really stood out, something that I use almost daily within teams and leadership.

We have a common idea of the leader being the one person, the decision-maker, the one with the knowledge and expertise. That makes for good stories for the movies but isn’t the way things best or often work in actual life. Good leaders need to be good at leading, not necessarily subject experts or best at everything.

As a leader, I need to hold a group, show vulnerability, listen, take advice, tell stories, discuss, and make decisions. I might have the expertise but I don’t have to use it, and I think it tends to work better when I don’t.

As an elder, or leader, I’m holding a group or situation. I might tell stories from the past about how this sort of issue has been resolved in the past, I might talk about what I don’t know or need to understand. I’ll listen to opinions and help diverse voices to be heard.

Holding, telling stories, listening. These are the key things I’m doing. I’m listening to experts around me and together we’re planing our actions. The group is doing something and can be meaningful to the participants. Showcasing my expert knowledge — if indeed I have any — will break this working ground. Letting others show their expertise or try out their ideas allows them the chance to develop and grow.

In practical day-to-day things, I may know how stuff works but allow others to do things. Again this is developing others. Projecting it-will-all-be-ok is useful, but solving all the problems, less so. Playing the fool can relieve tension too – it can be great in an interview situation to take the pressure off the candidate. Being more fun and just slightly less bureaucratic-professional can relax and mitigate for power, allowing people to shine through fear or nerves.

Listening, holding, stories, and being warm. That’s enough.