Experts can become successful leaders; so can non-experts. The path to leadership for the former includes understanding the limits of their expertise. Conversely, the path for the latter includes recognizing the value of their non-expert contributions.

Both paths, thus, require an understanding of the benefits of specific and general knowledge and how they should be combined and used as the diverse tools they are. In other words, the path to leadership includes not being the smartest in the room.

We’re surrounded!

Surround yourself with people smarter than you. OK, what does that mean, practically? And how do we use that idea to propel our organizations, our teams and ourselves forward?

The first step is understanding the value we bring to the table as an individual. Honestly, are we the foremost expert in the world on the product or service our company provides? If so, does that knowledge allow us to invent, create or otherwise continue to contribute advancements to the field?

Great, then the pressure is on us to continue to use our expertise to contribute to the advancement of the organization. To do this, we need administrative and operational distractions removed or managed.

In addition, we need resources to feed our creative endeavors. We may also need occasional coaching on the mission, purpose and overall goals of the organization to keep our work on the right track.

Thus, our success as an expert individual contributor means we need to find other experts who will challenge our thinking, stimulate our creativity and continue to arouse our passion for pushing the limits of our knowledge.

We also need to find people who are excellent at those things with which we have no interest in excelling but are necessary for our success, like managers, operational experts, and coaches. These are the people who will clear the path for us, keep us on track and inspire us with a different perspective.

Similarly, those of us who are not technical experts must build ourselves a cadre of experts in leadership, management and operational excellence to ensure we continue to grow our strengths, resources and perspective in those areas. Further, we need to find the people who are amazing at the technical side of our business, the thing only our organization does well, our mission and purpose, and do what we can to support their continued contributions to our success.

Cows in the rain

In both cases, the smarter people around us are not a threat to our success but the means for it. To see this, we need to embrace our inner stoic: the obstacle is the way.

Once we see that, we are free to recognize that if we want to continue to advance professionally by taking on more leadership responsibilities, we will need to work with, understand and learn from the smarter people around us. Leaders need an understanding of the technical side of the core business operations if they are going to read the business landscape and think strategically about next steps for the organization.

Technical experts must learn from the operational experts around them so that as they advance, they can better clear the way for other experts, gain a better understanding of how their contribution advances the business, and leverage resources to ensure it continues.

The bottom line is that by recognizing our own value and then learning from, not being threatened by, the smart people around us, we can become stronger leaders.