The Leadership Mistake You're Almost Surely Making

September 2021 

By Belinda Clemmensen


When I work with leaders they come from all kinds of industries and functions.  They may be experts in finance, operations, mining, transportation, or any number of other fascinating subject areas.  When we begin our work together, I always start with one statement, “once you become a leader your subject matter expertise will only account for 50% or less of your job.  The other half of your work will be in leadership.”  When I say this, most leaders don’t believe me, and to be honest, most leaders don’t operate that way.  Many still rely on their subject matter expertise (SME), thinking that it will lead them to success, but this actually has the opposite effect.  Relying too heavily on SME is perhaps the most common mistake as a people leader.


The issue begins with the fact that our functional or industry expertise got us the job in the first place.  And it’s often what gets rewarded or what gets us promoted, but it’s also what we’re most comfortable working with.  We know it, we’ve invested in it and we rely on it. Many leaders don’t come into their roles with leadership expertise, and some don’t even have an interest in leadership skills development.  We have all known leaders who never developed the skill set of leadership before ending up in a leadership role.  They were great at their job, so they became the leader.  You do a great job - so you get promoted, sounds like it makes sense. But it only actually works if two things are in place.  First, the leader needs to be willing to shift their mindset from needing to be a SME in a particular area to being an expert in leading people.  And secondly, they need to invest the time and energy into developing people leadership skills because people are likely the most complex element of your job as a leader. 


Here’s where my next piece of advice comes in.  I say, “you need to spend as much time developing your leadership skillset and expertise as you do or did developing your subject matter expertise.”  There’s just no other way to get good at it, except putting in the work.  How many leaders do you know who spend as much time learning about leadership as they did learning their functional role?  They are the rare few, but likely some of the best leaders you know.  When we work with someone who really takes on the work of leadership, it has a huge positive impact on the team and organization. 


What we need to help people avoid this persistent leadership mistake is a paradigm shift from leaders as subject matter experts to leaders as experts in leading people.  Yes, they will always need that other 50% or so - their industry or functional expertise.  But when you become a leader, the work shifts from doing to leading and that’s a completely different job, with a completely different set of skills, capabilities and expertise.


After 20+ years developing leaders there’s one thing I can say for sure. The ones who embrace learning and developing as leaders – all the skills that go with that role – setting vision and direction, managing people, setting culture, leading values, feedback, performance management, collaboration, facilitation…and perhaps most important of all, coaching are the most successful.  They are able to bring out the best in their people, show the way and ultimately embrace their role as leader, in service of the people and organizations they lead.  Those who choose to rely on their SME alone, are making a fundamental leadership mistake that will surely cost them, their team and their organization.  


Want to learn more? Check out our video on how to Detach From Subject Matter Expertise.               



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