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Issue: 56 - Aug 15, 2013
Expertise: A Powerful Leadership Tool
By: Jessica Goodman Lee, CVPM
Brakke Consulting, Inc.

Being a leader is not easy, but being a successful leader is downright difficult.  There are many different forms of power that a leader can both use and exploit to assist them in their position, many of which can have some pretty problematic side effects.  For example, while using the power of position, the power to give rewards, the power to punish and the power to control information may have some strength in limited situations, they ultimately place the person, or people, being led in an unhealthy position of weakness. 

The truth is that leaders who focus on the use of coerciveness and threats to accomplish their objectives are seen as autocratic and out of touch, and rarely succeed in exerting any positive influence over their organization or people.  Societies have changed tremendously over the last fifty years, and individuals are encouraged to create their own power and take responsibility for their own decisions.  Few of us enjoy having power exerted over us and will do what we can to undermine those that try to use these types of power on us.  According to Mahatma Ghandi, “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscle; but today it means getting along with people.”

What effective leaders in today’s world have found is that there is a tremendous amount of power in knowledge, and that pursuing the “art” of rational persuasion through the development of expertise is one of the best ways to positively influence the actions of others.  Because team members look to designated leaders in their organization for direction and guidance, they must believe in their leaders’ ability to set a worthwhile course and give sound advice.  When the team recognizes the expertise of its leader, it increases their motivation to improve their own performance and work toward a common and genuinely worthwhile goal. 

That is the real beauty in leading through the power of expertise.  It is not about knowing more than others - it is in being able to use what you know to motivate and guide others to improve.  The power in knowledge comes from the ability to share what you have learned with those around you.  Others will respect and look up to you when you are willing to help them do their job better.  This is diametrically opposed to the far less persuasive leadership mentality that knowledge is power as long as you have it and no one else does.  Not only is there almost no value in knowing something if it can’t be shared, but hoarding information quickly leads to an erosion of trust that can rarely be regained. 

To effectively use the power of expertise, leaders need to know their subject matter inside and out, backwards and forwards, before expecting others to place their trust in them.  Good, quality information from reliable, accurate sources not only widens your perspective and creates the sources from which ideas emerge, but it also provides the tools and criteria by which ideas and initiatives are screened and assessed based on their relevance and viability.

Maintaining credibility as an expert requires a commitment to constant information gathering, because what may be the perfect solution today may not be tomorrow.  Because expert power is demonstrated through the ability to rationally persuade others, it is critical to always have a firm grasp on the most up-to-date facts and information, whether from within the team, organization, industry or outside world.  It is important to avoid jeopardizing your status as an expert by claiming knowledge outside your realm of expertise.  It is far better to admit to not knowing something, than to lose credibility by providing incorrect information.  Once lost, it can be an uphill battle to regain the trust of the team.

So where should veterinary practice leaders go to acquire the information that leads to expert knowledge? It helps to look at information gathering as progressive circles, each one growing in size around the previous one.  While some areas of expertise can be achieved by staying within the smaller circles of the practice or veterinary industry, there are other areas where knowledge will have to be obtained from a much broader variety of sources.  Consider the difference in information gathering that needs to occur to become an expert in kennel sanitation versus an expert in managing conflict in the workplace.  Both are valuable areas of expertise in a veterinary practice, but the information comes from different sources and requires differing amounts of time and ability to obtain and master (see diagram).  That is one of the other beautiful things about expert power – it comes in all sizes and is available to anyone willing to achieve it, regardless of their position in the practice.

While expert power is a leadership choice that demonstrates initiative and drive, it does not give those who have earned it the authority to have a one-way conversation with their team.  Use of rational persuasion still requires that leaders listen carefully and make sure to address team members’ concerns.  But expert power in and of itself is based on a knowledge differential between the leader and team members, which means that a leader with expert power needs to be especially mindful of threatening others’ self-esteem.  It is important to guard against lecturing team members in a condescending manner or conveying the impression that they are “ignorant” because they don’t know what you do.  The purpose of expert power is to share knowledge, not flaunt it.

Expert power is not the only type of positive power that leaders have to work with - consider the powers of charisma and influence.  Even some of the more autocratic leadership methods have their place in critical situations.  But expertise is the only power that leaders can count on to guide them through almost any situation and land on their feet.  Charismatic leaders are wonderful, but charisma alone doesn’t get the job done.  Influential leaders can use their connections and persuasive personality to make things happen, but their team will eventually tire of not being shown anything of substance. 

Leaders that rely on expert power know that it is not for them to be a fountain of knowledge on every topic and issue that arises in practice – they recognize that there is tremendous benefit in sharing this power and surrounding themselves with a team made up of experts.  The strength and knowledge base of both the practice and individual team members is enhanced when expert power is willingly shared throughout the organization. With all the benefits and none of the negative side-effects that accompany other leadership styles, a team led by someone with expert power, in which each member is encouraged to carve out their own area of expertise, is clearly one of the most powerful tools for increasing practice performance. 

    Sources of Expert Information

Diagram 1 shows the information gathering sources for becoming an expert at kennel sanitation as compared to the information gathering sources for becoming an expert at conflict in the workplace.  Each circle is also representative of a greater investment of time on the part of the individual seeking expertise in that subject matter.

Jessica Goodman Lee, CVPM

Brakke Consulting, Inc.