We are accustomed to seeing organisations from Fortune 500 firms to hospitals choosing charismatic general managers for senior leadership positions over core-business experts (such as doctors in hospitals). My research suggests this is wrong; organisations on average perform better when they are led by individuals with core business talent (expert knowledge).
In random samples of 35,000 US and UK workers matched with their firms, and in five recent studies, four in healthcare and one in higher education, we have found that a line manager's technical competence is the single strongest predictor of both employee job satisfaction and intentions to quit. Our findings suggest that expert leaders know best how to create the optimal work environment to enable others to flourish, through motivation, consultation, appropriate assessment and support. If you have walked the proverbial walk -- as an expert leader has -- then you know what it takes to motivate expert followers. New research is taking us into the important area of school leadership.
Being a core business expert is not a proxy for having good leadership and management skills. These are also key. But it is easier to train the best experts to be managers and leaders than it is to educate general managers in technical expertise built up over decades. Designing appropriate leadership development is another area of research that feeds into our teaching. We have also completed research that examines the incentives and disincentives of the leadership pathway in medicine.
A reappreciation of the role of experts is essential if we are ever to slow the rate of climate change and species decline.