TED Talk by Stanley McChrystal

Are You an Inverted Leader? The Case for Making Sure the Leader is Not the Expert

Kathryn Scanland Leadership

TED Talk by Stanley McChrystal

A leader isn’t good because they’re right; they’re good because they’re willing to learn and to trust.-Brigadier General Stanley McChrystal

Last week I began facilitating two new cohorts in a 12-month leadership development program. As one of several ways to introduce the concept of leadership to these emerging leaders I used a TED Talk by Stanley McChrystal, a former 4-star Army General. In his less than 20-minute presentation, he hits a number of key leadership behaviors.  But he also introduces an idea that I think will only become more common—inversion of expertise.

In the not so distant past it was typical for individuals in an organization to be promoted up through the ranks because of their increased level of expertise, and it was usually technical expertise of some form. It was assumed that the more technical expertise someone could offer the organization that they could also lead. Maybe that assumption held true more frequently in the industrial age, but in today’s organizations that could be a recipe for failure.

John Kotter (Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at Harvard Business School) defines leadership as “taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities. Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about providing useful change. Leadership is about behavior.”  Using Kotter’s definition of leadership, there is very little technical expertise required.

Getting back to McChrystal’s TED Talk, he said, “So how does a leader stay credible and legitimate when they haven’t done what the people you’re leading are doing?  It’s a brand new leadership challenge. It forced me to become a lot more transparent, a lot more willing to listen, a lot more willing to be reverse-mentored from below.”

I can think of several individuals who served on an organization’s board of directors and became the CEO. Even though they had been on the organization’s board, they weren’t on the board for their content expertise but for their leadership within the community and/or constituency base. One example that particularly intrigued me was Mark Murray, who went from university president to leading a big box retailer with nearly 200 store locations. Murray had served on the retailer’s board of directors for a couple of years and Murray’s leadership capabilities were evident to the corporate leaders. Without one bit of retail experience, he took on the challenge and for more than seven years led the organization well.

This type of leadership, that now includes inversion of expertise, requires behaviors that haven’t always been thought of as leader-like. Behaviors like being transparent, really listening, and a willingness to be reverse-mentored from below are somewhat new to the list for great leadership. The leader is not the expert. The leader is the one channeling the expertise to address opportunities that are coming at the organization faster and faster.

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Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.
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