Can you be a good leader without domain expertise?

There is a broad assumption that the skills of leadership are transferable. If you can motivate and inspire people in one area, you can do the same in other areas.

Studies suggest that people with domain expertise have a better chance of leading a team in the same domain, compared to a person from a different field. A hospital will run better, led by a doctor than one managed by people from other backgrounds. There are innumerable examples of people who ran one company effectively and had trouble transferring their skills to the new organization.

There is a broad understanding across schools that leadership education is about teaching the core elements which include: the ability to motivate self and others, effective oral and written communication, critical thinking skills, problem-solving ability, and skills at working with teams and delegating tasks, which can be used as a blanket across any industry.

Good leaders take a large amount of data, filter it and present it to the team so that they can identify and solve the core problem. They need to create trust within the team and with this trust, overcome challenges, which are otherwise impossible to manage. However, you cannot take correct decisions if you are not a subject-matter person. The critical information that a doctor needs to diagnose a patient is different from the knowledge to understand a political standoff, and both of those differ from what is needed to negotiate a good business deal.

A doctor communicating with his patient is significantly different from an engineer reacting to a delay in the project or a politician defending a price rise in essential food items. Also, the domain of expertise in different industries will be different – for example, your expertise in construction, semiconductor, consulting, etc .are all different from each other.

One of the common solutions is to hire people around you who are SMEs (subject matter experts). The challenge here is, if you are NOT a domain expert, how can you identify that they are the right person for the job at hand?

Therefore preparing potential leaders, we have to consider the following two aspects. One, we need to appraise and be clear that domain expertise is important, in which case, we will only look at candidates who have sufficient skills in their field to take them to the next level. Second, when we train people to take on leadership roles, we need to give them the practice to solve domain-specific problems so that they can integrate information in the arena in which they are being asked to lead.  

This is all the more critical now since the current generation hardly sticks to one organization beyond a small time period, which means that they are most unlikely to master the domain knowledge, required to take leadership roles. Companies should therefore identify prospective future leaders and encourage them to settle down in the organization for a long enough period in order to develop the specific domain skills they need to lead efficiently.