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Passion, People and Principles

Who Should Lead?

post # 45 — April 7, 2006 — a Managing post

Carl A. Singer, senior implementation manager at Information Builders Consulting, posed the following question –

In architecture, we tend to assume that the ‘alpha’ Subject Matter Expert will be the firm leader. For ten years my Army Reserve assignment was at the Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership. That, my B-school background and my life experiences has led me to question whether and when this conclusion is correct. Can a member of the professional ‘manager class’ who is not a top architect / accountant / lawyer (fill-in-the-blank) professional lead a professional architectural / accounting / law (fill-in-the-blank) firm?

Carl, my experiences match those of your army, B-school and life background in questioning the (apparently common) assumption that the smartest technician should be the business leader.

The manager / leader’s task is to help the organization succeed by building the capabilities of others – and that is not best done by having better answers than they have and telling them the right path.

Rather, it requires being able to guide other people through the process of building their knowledge and skills. And, of course, being good at something doesn’t automatically make you good at teaching others how to do it.

On the other hand, to successfully manage or lead, you MUST have the credibility to be received as a good coach, as someone who has ‘been there and done it.’ The professional manager from outside the discipline will rarely be accepted as a coach. It CAN be done, but earning the trust of professionals is very hard.

(I described the coaching process in my article A Great Coach in Action.)

cover of David Maister's co-authored book, Thr

The formula given in my book Trusted Advisor is, I hope, helpful here.

Being able to lead means being trusted, and trust is determined by four things –

  • Credibility
  • Reliability
  • Intimacy
  • Lack of Self-Orientation

You have to be credible to lead, but you don’t have to be the absolute best.

You do have to be seen as dependable or reliable, able to relate to those you are trying to influence on a one-to-one basis (that’s intimacy) and be received as REALLY trying to help the group win, not just burnish your own glory.

Many otherwise fabulously skilled technicians fail these other tests and make pathetically bad leaders.


Anon said:

I’m a fan of breaking up the in charge role. One person can do vision, someone else can do execution (e.g. Emperor v. Shogun in Japan, Bill Gates as chief software architect vs. Steve Ballmer as CEO).

posted on April 7, 2006

Roman Rytov said:

I’ve just published a blog about the ideal boss:


posted on April 8, 2006

Howard Lovatt said:

If you have a specialist domain I think it is important that a specialist makes the strategic decisions. This might involve splitting the leadership up as Anon [sic] said if one person isn’t suitable for both roles. E.g. someone strong strategically may not be strong operationally.

posted on April 10, 2006