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The Landscape of Leadership: Evaluating 'Subject Matter Expert' Necessity

Over the past several months, my colleagues and I have engaged in a debate about whether a leader should assume the role of 'subject matter expert" (SME) over various team member deliverables. This ongoing dialogue has been characterized by diverse and animated opinions both in favor of and in opposition to the idea.The different perspectives underscore a broader reality, illustrating that there is no universal solution to this matter as organizational cultures, leadership philosophies, and industry intricacies all contribute to shaping the various viewpoints.

While there is consensus on the benefits of having a leader well-versed in the business they oversee, the distinction between being well-versed and a true 'subject matter expert' introduces subtle, yet explicit nuances. What seems further agreed upon is that the suitability of leadership styles depends heavily on individual team members and the specific demands of their roles. For instance;

  • In technically oriented fields such as IT, Manufacturing, Production, Military, or Finance & Banking, where technical expertise is paramount, a technical leadership model thrives. This model emphasizes strategic decision-making, operational efficiency, process-flow orientation, and precise execution. Leaders excel by analyzing data, optimizing processes, and aligning resources to meet specific objectives. As success in this industry is dependent on the technicality of delivery, expertise in a technical capacity is required.

  • Conversely, in industries that are less tactical and more relational, such as Healthcare, Social Services, Education, Hospitality, Customer Service, and Advocacy, a Relational Leadership Model aligns seamlessly. Leaders in this space prioritize empathetic communication, foster a supportive work environment, and create a culture of trust and motivation. Leaders excel in this type of model by prioritizing connectedness, collaboration, and open communication. These leaders build trust through active listening while simultaneously cultivataing an environment of innovation through recognizing the different approaches necessary to meet the unique customer needs.

It's crucial to recognize that team members and organizations often benefit from a balanced approach of leaders who can operate from a place of tactical knowledge and relational skills. Truly effective leaders possess a diverse skill set, allowing them to adapt their style and shift their skills based on the unique needs of their team and the context / nature of the organization and industry. The best leaders are those who understand that continuous learning and development are integral to success, and providing opportunities for team members to become subject matter experts promotes growth and development, deepens a sense of value, and drives greater job satisfaction and engagement. As this might suggest, a leader's ability to be "subject matter knowledgeable" in the different facets of their team's role seems more aligned with creating sustainable teams, as opposed to "subject matter experts".

In conclusion, the belief that "A leader who knows everything limits their teams potential" underscores the idea that leaders need not possess exhaustive knowledge in specific areas, but should instead be measured by their ability to navigate effectively, encouraging collaboration and leveraging the diverse expertise within the team. The emphasis of leadership is on creating an environment that guides the discovery of solutions and fosters continuous learning, recognizing that true leadership lies in empowering and supporting the growth of those they lead.

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