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How important is domain knowledge for leadership?

Is it possible to lead a team without domain knowledge? For some, this might be like trying to captain a ship without knowing how the sails work. And yet, for many institutions and organisations, it is the norm. Just look at the UK governance, where it is estimated that in recent years the average tenure of a ministerial post has been 1.7 years, resulting in some of the most powerful people in the country being moved from department to department, with little to no domain knowledge. The traditional argument goes that good leadership skills negate the need for deep knowledge and, while we could question the British government’s definition of ‘good leadership’, is this argument always true?

We spoke to one of our top leadership coaches, Steve Chamberlain, on the subject. As a facilitator, Steve is used to wearing two hats: first, a powerful leader commanding the energy and attention of delegates, guiding them through their individual learning journeys; and secondly, a genuine expert in his field. For him, deep knowledge is critical for a few key reasons.

Confidence in leadership

“It gives you the ability to answer questions in the moment, think on your feet, and the confidence to deliver ideas succinctly”

Most of us know what it feels like to be caught out – someone asks us a question and suddenly it’s as if we are skating on thin ice, trying to bluff our way out of what could be a very awkward silence. And while a courageous and human leader would simply say ‘I don’t know’ in these moments, having a depth of knowledge can act as a superpower for accessing the right information at the right time. That’s because it encourages us to do what experts call ‘retrieval practice’. Let’s imagine our brain as a library of books, and our conscious mind as the librarian; with low levels of knowledge, our librarian becomes lazy, handing out pamphlets and magazines from the front desk in the hopes that whoever is asking a question of us will move on. When our knowledge is low, so is our self-confidence.

When our depth of knowledge increases, so does our self-confidence to find the right answer. We start to believe we can truly add value. Our librarian becomes efficient and full of energy – readily finding the right book needed on the topic. As a result, we are far more able to answer difficult questions, think on our feet, and communicate with confidence.

Clarity of vision

“The more deeply we understand something, the fewer words we need to explain it.”

In order to convey our ideas succinctly and impactfully, having genuine understanding of the subject is fundamental – when we understand something, we are able to help others understand it. As a leader, this makes it infinitely easier to engage your team, uniting them on your clear and powerful vision. The alternative is leaving them to wade through waffle and come to their own conclusions about what it is you were trying to say. Clarity is key, and knowledge creates clarity.

Experienced leaders

”If I have not experienced the learning, or seen its benefits, how can I be trusted to take anyone else on that learning journey?”

As a coach, Steve recognises that he can only ever coach somebody as deeply as he has gone himself. While this might not be as prevalent in all cases of leadership, a leader’s role is to guide their employees in the direction of a shared vision. Guiding a team along a path that you know nothing about is far more difficult than guiding them along a path you understand. When you know the steps, the obstacles, the highs and the lows, your team is far more likely to feel safe in your hands. With zero domain knowledge, you are like a GPS with bad signal. In order to navigate a path that you have no understanding of, it would take extraordinary skills that very few have.

Right now, many organisations are filling management roles based on technical skill, and are consequently struggling with their leadership culture. At the opposite end of the scale, many leaders are floundering because they are lacking domain knowledge. The good news is, your team does not need to sit at either of these extremes – there is another way.

Ivy House are on a mission to create extraordinary leaders. Leaders with the knowledge and skills to navigate the right path for themselves, their team and their organisation. To learn more about how we do this, and how we could do it for you, get in touch today.





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