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Leadership – A Readily Transferable Skill or is Technical Expertise Required?

It is often assumed that the most important leadership skills are high level, broad skills, such as critical thinking ability, problem solving skills, communication skills, the ability to delegate and to motivate – and that these skills can be readily transferred from one industry to another. However, without technical expertise in the area the leader is working in, how do they get to the very essence of a problem, when trying to solve it? How do they communicate effectively, using the correct terminology with those who are actually performing the work? Research has found that often industry specific knowledge yields significant advantages – hospitals run by doctors for example, perform better than those run by leaders with a non-medical background.

The counter argument is, that those without industry specific knowledge can hire and surround themselves with those who do have this information, and be advised by these people. However, without having the technical knowledge themselves, how do those leaders know if the advice they are being given, is in fact correct? Looking critically, it appears that industry specific knowledge is intrinsically linked to many of the leadership skills aforementioned, including the ability to communicate and solve problems effectively and efficiently.

The issue with this is that employees are increasingly likely to change domains and with this movement, industry specific knowledge is lost. Therefore, leaders need to think carefully about employee retention and succession plans. By identifying future leaders within an industry or business, they can then focus on developing and training them, in order to equip them with the leadership skills they will need to progress in that industry.


From Harvard Business Review – November 2017.