Effective leadership encompasses a wide array of skills and qualities that extend beyond mere professional expertise. While expertise in a specific field is undoubtedly valuable, it is not the sole determinant of leadership excellence. Leadership requires the ability to inspire and influence others, make strategic decisions, foster collaboration and navigate complex challenges. In fact, the most impactful leaders often possess a combination of diverse skills, including emotional intelligence, communication, adaptability and a growth mindset. Does that mean professional expertise is a must for leadership roles? Is it not possible for individuals with average talent to excel as leaders?’
“The importance of professional expertise in leadership roles varies depending on the specific demands of the role,” points out Ravi Kumar, CPO, Page Industries. If the role primarily emphasises leadership skills, the significance of having expertise in a specific area or multiple areas is diminished. However, if the role is highly specialised and focused on functional aspects, the impact of possessing extensive expertise in a particular area is significant in the success of the business.
For instance, in a leadership role that involves managing a large teams across multiple locations and diverse cultures, the significance of leadership skills outweighs professional expertise. This is because, there are other experts within the team who can handle the technical aspects. In such cases, leadership abilities become crucial. On the other hand, in a specialised functional role where technical proficiency is essential and the team size is relatively small, the impact of possessing expert capabilities is highly significant.
However, it’s not necessary that only professional expertise or leadership skills are solely required or one is superior than the other. “While professional expertise can be advantageous, leaders who possess emotional intelligence and strong communication skills can still excel by effectively leveraging the expertise of their team, promoting a positive work environment, and inspiring and guiding their team members towards success,” opines Amit Das, director-HR & CHRO, Bennett & Coleman.
“The importance of professional expertise in leadership roles varies depending on the specific demands of the role.”
Ravi Kumar, CPO, Page Industries
It is crucial for individuals, even if they are experts in a specific technical domain or functioning as individual contributors, to develop these abilities. Emotional intelligence, collaboration skills and a growth mindset are particularly important for leaders to cultivate in order to succeed.
Agreeing with the same, A Thiru, a C-suite HR professional, adds, “Professional expertise is the foundation on which one can claim one’s Mount Everest. As one grows higher and higher, other qualities such as emotional intelligence and social intelligence become critical requirements.”
Citing his own example, he shares how in his previous stint, the company gave employees — entry-level to manager and general-manager levels— the option to choose between two gateways, whether they would like to travel in the current profession or choose an alternate option.
“This approach resulted in a balanced mix of leaders at the top, ensuring the organisation had a well-developed succession plan that encompassed both professional expertise and general management skills,” asserts Thiru.
Kumar goes on to say, “Even in technical roles, having some level of leadership capability is important. As a leader, even if one primarily works independently in one’s area of expertise, there will be instances where one may require assistance from others. Collaboration and effective teamwork are equally vital in all roles.”
Besides, there are different types of leadership roles where professional expertise holds varying degrees of importance. As these roles may require different degrees of expertise, the specific needs of the team or organisation should be considered while assessing the importance of professional expertise in a leadership role.
Das opines, “In technical or specialised and knowledge-driven industries, professional expertise plays a more crucial role than in creative fields and entrepreneurial ventures.”
“While professional expertise can be advantageous, leaders who possess emotional intelligence and strong communication skills can still excel by effectively leveraging the expertise of their team, promoting a positive work environment, and inspiring and guiding their team members towards success.”
Amit Das, director-HR & CHRO, Bennett & Coleman
On the other hand, Kumar observes that individual expertise is often valued more highly than leadership capability in creative fields. “The nature of the creative field allows individuals to work independently and bring forth new ideas without extensive collaboration. It can be a personal effort focused on specific areas of expertise and learning. As a creator of new ideas in a creative field, individual brilliance is highly regarded,” he explains.
According to him, tech fields have a greater emphasis on processes and a more systematic and methodical approach to work. Therefore, in these domains, a balance of leadership skills, collaboration and expertise tends to be more effective. The need for both leadership and technical expertise is recognised in order to navigate the complexities of the tech industry.
Now, how can organisations strike a balance between promoting leaders with deep professional expertise and those with broader leadership skills?
“To strike a balance, organisations can focus on the development of both roles, whether they are individual contributors in highly specialised areas or leaders in broader leadership positions,” believes Kumar. Individuals with deep expertise can be given opportunities to gain exposure to collaborative situations or areas such as financial metrics and analytics that require reaching out to others within the organisation for help and collaboration. By providing such opportunities, organisations can allow the ‘experts’ to learn from working with others and broaden their skill set.
“At times, companies may face challenging situations that are beyond their control. During such difficult periods, organisations must proactively cultivate leaders who possess a high adversity quotient. This is in line with the saying, ‘tough times do not last, but tough people do’,” adds Thiru. By intentionally developing individuals with resilience and the ability to thrive in adverse conditions, companies can better navigate and overcome challenging circumstances.
“At times, companies may face challenging situations that are beyond their control. During such difficult periods, organisations must proactively cultivate leaders who possess a high adversity quotient.”
A Thiru, C-suite, HR professional
Thiru recalls one such incident in one of his previous companies where he proposed transfer of a high potential employee to shut a factory in one of the group companies, when everyone was hesitant about it. “I convinced the individual and the chairman of the company and implemented the same. This exposure further sharpened the saw and the individual subsequently became the CEO of one of our acquired companies overseas.”
“In leadership roles, the organisations can identify and develop leadership competencies, provide diverse development opportunities, foster collaboration and knowledge sharing, incorporate multiple perspectives in leadership selection, embrace team-based leadership and provide ongoing support and feedback for leaders’ growth,” opines Das.
Similarly, leaders themselves are presented with opportunities within their teams to enhance specific capabilities that may be required in certain areas, which allows them to develop their leadership skills further.
“All employees are not expected to excel in their professional skills as well as general management skills. While we (company) can give the option to choose, it is the basic responsibility of the top management to ensure, as a team, that the organisation has a mix of both professional expertise and general-management expertise, so that individuals can step in and contribute based on the need of the hour,” points out Thiru.
Sharing another example, he adds, “I inspired a young high potential talent to assume the role of executive assistant when we appointed a global CEO, citing that such opportunity can knock your career only once. He utilised the opportunity and accelerated his learning curve which eventually fast tracked his career to become the youngest CEO of one of the group companies.”
“While professional expertise may not be a prerequisite for leadership, it can enhance a leader’s credibility and provide valuable insights and guidance to their team. Effective leadership involves a combination of qualities such as vision, communication, decision-making, adaptability, empathy and the ability to inspire and motivate others. These qualities are not solely dependent on professional expertise but can be developed and honed through experience, self-awareness and a commitment to personal growth,” concludes Das.