A problem I observed in academia was individuals who had one specific area of expertise automatically assuming they were definitively qualified to conclusively comment on important subjects far outside their knowledge base. It’s a Ph.D. in a specific subject not automatic confirmation that you know everything about everything.

I sat in faculty meetings as individuals with doctoral degrees in philosophy or literature felt supremely confident and almost compelled to opine on key issues in leadership and management despite having zero experience in these subjects. I once watched a person who had managed to talk a university out of a Ph.D. based on a dissertation concerning a specific director of comedic films lecture individuals with tremendous experience academically and professionally in business administration about which majors and minors they should and should not offer. It was painful to watch and even worse to have to listen to it since he was in charge.

There’s absolutely no question we can learn new ways to think about problems and solutions from others outside our profession and discipline. Indeed, this approach was a key driver of the Renaissance which involved combining talented experts from diverse fields to consider different questions.

Multi-disciplinary teams bring plenty of measurable benefits especially when the issue crosses professions, departments, or agencies. However, the wrong behavior I witnessed in academia is not driven by actual competence or a desire to assist but just plain arrogance.

Yes, a subject matter expert with decades of success can be wrong – it happens all the time. However, the odds of you being right when you have never had a single accomplishment in a specific industry or profession or field of study and have not done any real research on the topic are next to zero. Once again, it is our character problems (e.g., ego, a compulsion for control, a lack of self-awareness) which create difficulties within organizations.

I often like to say, “Only when I knew it all could I learn anything” referring to the person who finally figures out how much they do not know. Leaders need to be highly intellectually curious and not assume they have the answers. They need to be rigorous thinkers applying compelling logic to sound evidence. They need to excel at asking the right questions. Surround yourself with teammates who have knowledge and skills you lack but need. Let others talk and ask good questions. Take advantage of times to have robust but civil discussions and hear all ideas and competing viewpoints. Don’t voice your perspective until everyone else has spoken (Sinek).

The most collaborative companies capitalizing on all the diversity of talent they have are consistently the most successful. The leader who assumes they know it all is certain to fail. It’s all about the logic and evidence and objective truth not you. The bottom line is your title, position, degree, resume, or tenure does not certify you as an expert on everything. Effective leaders know this to be true.


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