One of the most widely held views about leadership is that the skills required to be a leader are generally transferrable. That is, as long as you understand what makes people tick and can inspire them to act, you can lead across domain areas and industry verticals.
Is that necessarily the case, though?
While it’s true that leaders don’t need technical skills to lead their company, department, or team to success, studies show that domain knowledge and technical skills can indeed be quite helpful, writes University of Texas psychology and marketing professor Art Markman in the Harvard Business Review.
When you come to think of it, this makes a lot of sense!
As a leader, you’re inclined to make much better judgements and decisions when you have firsthand experience in the challenges at hand and an in-depth understanding of the subject matter.
Everyone has their own version of a story where they worked for an organization that decided to hire a leader with no technical skills, very often because they had an outstanding track record from the outside, only to see their leadership collapse and their subordinates become demoralized.
Technical Proficiency Doesn’t Guarantee Leadership Success
There’s no doubt that domain knowledge and technical skills can help you solve problems more effectively as a leader. But that’s only the case if you use them properly and don’t let overconfidence get in the way.
With domain knowledge and technical skills, you can easily fall prey to your expert’s bias—the unshakable belief that you have the solution to the dilemma or conundrum at hand—becoming incapable of listening to others and developing blind spots to viewpoints other than your own.
This is especially true if you come from an expert’s background, and you’re somebody who has climbed the organizational ladder over time to eventually take on the role of a leader.
Fortunately, the remedy is simple:
First, remember that, as a leader, you’re working in abstraction. Your reasoning and knowledge may be accurate, but you lack facts and details that the people in your organization, division, or team have. The only way to “unlock” those facts and details is to listen and gather inputs.
Second, develop a scientific and empirical approach to your decision-making. Take great caution to understand and define the problems and challenges at hand, develop hypotheses for the solutions and their likely outcomes, and then put them to the test.
By embracing these two attitudes, you can ensure that your domain knowledge and technical skills will enhance, rather than hinder, your ability to lead.
What to Do If You’re Not Technical
What if you’re someone who’s not from a technical background, and you’ve recently been hired or assigned to lead a technical team in your organization?
Your team will come to you with strategic dilemmas and tactical trade-offs, and—whether you understand the subject matter or not—you will need to work with them to make quality decisions along the way.
Create a decision workflow:
For every dilemma that your team brings to you, determine whether you can empower them to make that decision and future decisions of that nature themselves, or whether you truly must make decide on it yourself.
We think that the key is to find balance:
On the one hand, certain decisions are up to you, and you only, and it would be perceived as unfair to push them down. Then there are those decisions are opportunities for development and growth for your team. Decide wisely.
Regardless of the outcome, you should be there to remove impediments for your team and protect them from politics and distraction, so they can focus on the work that creates clarity and moves the needle.
Become superb at asking questions:
Okay, so you’re leading a technical team, but you yourself are not technical. Adopt a beginner’s mindset and turn your weakness into a superpower.
Don’t be afraid to be wrong, and use your state of not knowing as a prompt to work with your team to break complex problems down into simple decisions and trade-offs that need to be made.
People are inclined to correct wrong statements. If you’re the one who’s not afraid to make them, and ask your team for help until you get to the heart of the matter, you can help them define very precisely the problems that they face.
Questions like “Can you help me understand this?” and “So, let me see if I hear you right” can help you elicit the underlying nature of the issues in question, with or without the expertise and technicality needed for an in-depth understanding.
Seek to develop applied knowledge:
It’s highly unlikely that you will have the time or the opportunity to develop the deep technical expertise that members of your team have. Then again, no one expects you to!
As you encounter new situations and face new problems, develop your own set of rules for how to deal with them, and similar ones like them, in the future. A “For Dummies” or “The Guide to” book can also take your understanding of the basics of the domain far.
American investor and founder of Bridgewater Associates Ray Dalio calls these “principles” in his eponymous book Principles, a #1 New York Times bestseller and #1 Amazon business book of the year.
No, you don’t need technical skills to be a leader. But expertise and technical aptitude can help you understand the challenges and struggles of your people and make higher-quality decisions and trade-offs.