Adam Caudill

Security Engineer, Researcher, & Developer

Leading Experts

A friend of mine recently asked for my thoughts on leading people who have more experience or expertise in a topic than they do; this is an important question and one that I felt deserved more thought and exploration. Leading people can be difficult, but when leading people that know more than you do about a given topic, it’s a different challenge. This was particularly well-timed, as I’ve found myself in just that situation, as I’ve just hired a specialist in incident response. While I’m fairly confident in my knowledge there, it pales in comparison to hers.

I’ll try to explore the issue and how it can be anything from different to difficult to effectively lead, when you are the one that needs to know more.

It’s easy when you’re the expert

Often in technical fields, those with the most expertise are promoted to lead those in the same field – as such, the leader has the most experience to draw on and the greatest level of knowledge. This gives those leaders a certain degree of additional confidence, as they can rely not only on the information they receive from their team, but also on their own knowledge and experience. This allows decisions to be made faster, with greater assurance that it’s correct, and hopefully, with the best possible information available.

In the real world, it’s not quite so simple. Leaders may overestimate the extent of their knowledge; they may fail to properly value the knowledge their team brings to the conversation; they may grow overconfident.

While we hope that leadership skills are present or will develop, the fact is that – most of the time – the people with the greatest knowledge and skill will be moved into leadership roles. They will have a team, and they will need to listen to them to achieve success. Leading from the front, when you’re at the forefront, is fairly easy. Leading when you know how much you don’t know is harder.

Encouraging disagreement

I would like to digress for a moment to talk about disagreements. If you are a leader, and someone on your team disagrees with you – it’s a good thing. Some people view a disagreement as a challenge to their knowledge or their authority; some will go so far as to call disagreement insubordination. In fact, it’s an opportunity. Treating it as anything less is a waste, harming both you and your team.

When a decision is challenged, it presents an opportunity for a couple of different things to happen:

  • You learn something. Maybe there was something that you missed, didn’t think of, or weren’t aware of. Maybe there’s more going on, maybe there’s been a breakthrough, maybe there’s a perspective to the problem that you hadn’t seen. While admitting you’re wrong can be difficult, it’s necessary to learn. Only by finding your own weaknesses can you become stronger. Only by learning about your blindspots can you learn to see more.
  • They learn something. There may be factors, perspectives, or details that they weren’t aware of. This gives you a chance to share your knowledge to make them better, more effective, stronger.

These disagreements should always be handled with respect, by all involved, but they represent an important opening for growth. Don’t discourage disagreement, don’t become defensive, don’t guard your position – open the door to ideas, grow as a team.

Listening to the experts

As a leader, it’s critical to surround yourself with smart people, and when possible, hire people smarter than you. What’s more challenging is to step back and accept that for all your knowledge and experience, they may know more than you. The ego is a powerful thing, and setting it aside isn’t always easy. Being proud of accomplishments is a good thing; letting your ego get in the way of being a good leader isn’t.

First, it’s important to understand the value in your team, the expertise they bring, and actively acknowledge that value. When you hire an expert, let them know that you both understand what they are bringing to the table, and how much you appreciate that expertise. When their expertise exceeds your own, this is vital. If you fail to do this, they may feel unwelcome, undervalued, unappreciated. When they share their knowledge and experience, they are helping you, don’t forget that.

Second, understand the limits of your own knowledge. If you believe that you know more than anyone else, you are not only almost certainly wrong, but you are actively harming your team. The best managers bring smart people together, give them the tools and support they need, then stay out of the way. You must understand how your knowledge overlaps, and see where it doesn’t, so that you can leverage your team to make sure that you are operating with the best information available. We all have our limits; we all have blindspots – I know I do.

Third, listen. It’s that simple. Listen. When you have a team full of smart people, you are the best leader when you leverage everyone’s combined knowledge, not just your own. Get their opinions, get their thoughts, get their perspectives, and then, and only then, make decisions. Get the best information available, and then you can take informed actions.

Leading by committee versus leading by knowledge

I shall digress, again, to attempt to make a clear point: listening to others isn’t leading by committee; it’s leading by knowledge. The collective knowledge of a team, with the knowledge of experts and specialists in their field, is greater, more accurate, and more impactful than the knowledge of any individual. This isn’t to say that a leader shouldn’t make decisions – as a leader, that’s the responsibility. However, it’s also the responsibility of a leader to make fully informed decisions. Fully informed decisions are never made in a vacuum.

It’s sometimes slower, it’s sometimes more complicated, it’s sometimes harder, but it’s better.

Giving everyone a seat at the table

There is no greater wasted opportunity, or greater harm to a team, than to ignore knowledgable voices. For a team to do well, every person, from the most junior to the most senior, deserves a seat at the table, a chance to be heard, to teach, or to learn. Give everyone a seat at the table.

Adam Caudill