[By Ariel Simpson, originally published December 2019 at EngagedAgility.com]
Lately I seem to be hearing the same question from everyone I meet: how much expertise does a leader need? Just in the past month I’ve heard the question from my boss, from my mentor, from the book I’m reading (Linchpin by Seth Godin), and from online posts I stumble across (like these from Inc.com and Ben Brearly). Everyone wants to know the answer.
But, for my own entertainment and for ease of discussion, I want to rephrase the question: Should you be a Mr. Miyagi or a Professor Xavier?
Mr. Miyagi is a character in the Karate Kid franchise who mentors a young martial arts student named Daniel. Though Mr. Miyagi has many abstract lessons to impart about life and learning (and waxing cars), he is primarily an expert in his student’s field. He knows martial arts, and is able to instruct his student based on his own deep understanding of the subject. Some of Mr. Miyagi’s advice would benefit any young person, but he is not a general youth mentor. He teaches and mentors around a specific field, and his expertise is deep.
Professor Xavier (or “Professor X”) is a character in the X-Men franchise who runs a “school for gifted youngsters” through which he recruits and trains young mutants to become super heroes. Professor Xavier is kind and patient and a very powerful mutant in his own right, but he also has a wide array of students under his tutelage, making it impossible for him to be an expert in each of their fields. Since he can’t lead based on subject-matter expertise, he must instead be a general coach, inspiring confidence and trust and leveraging failure towards future growth. When it comes to helping specific mutants hone their powers, he delegates that tutelage to his more senior students and X-Men team members.
Which is better?
A lot of people who work in technical or physical fields appreciate Mr. Miyagi leaders. People appreciate Engaged Agility founder Matt, for example, because he is a great Miyagi! He has studied computer science and worked in software for years, and he
Mr. Miyagi’s students… presumably can easily coach any team or individual in that field towards higher productivity and greater efficiency. (To be fair, he is a great coach outside of software too, but his depth of expertise gives him an efficiency boost in the realm of software.) The Harvard Business Review points out that Professor Xavier-type business skills like problem solving and delegating are only useful if you understand how to put them in context. “How do these leaders even know whether they have found the right people to give them information? If managers cannot evaluate the information they are getting for themselves, then they cannot lead effectively.”
On the other hand, I really do believe in the value of a Professor Xavier. That tends to be the role I play: I’m new to the software world, and it takes me a while to acclimate myself to a new software team, but my background in psychology helps me adapt quickly to new personalities, new team dynamics, and leadership demands. Forbes acknowledges that yes, Professor Xaviers won’t have all of the answers—but that’s not a bad thing. When you’re not the expert, you’re able to truly empower your team. Your real skill can be in the quality of the questions you ask instead of the quality of the answers you give.
Focus on the Team
I continue to wrestle with this question, but I suspect that the real conclusion is obvious. We need to shift our focus from ourselves to the team. What do they need from a coach?
Despite what many believe, not every coach is suited to every group or individual. A high-potential team may not connect with every gifted coach. Personalities and temperaments and past experiences can color our impressions of each other and keep productive relationships from blossoming. In addition to these personal differences, I think industry differences play an even bigger role. Fields like medicine, construction, and the law require deep expertise. For a leader to provide guidance regarding a surgical technique, she needs Miyagi-level understanding of that technique. For a leader to provide guidance on a surgeon’s professional development goals, a Professor Xavier approach may be better.
Let the Team Members Be the Experts
Even for the Miyagi expert-coaches, I don’t believe our expertise should equal that of the teams or individuals we’re coaching. We need to understand the work they’re doing and how it fits into the surrounding value streams and industry, but after that let’s set some limits. If you dive too deeply into the weeds, you may end up micromanaging your team or becoming a crutch for them to turn to instead of learning information themselves. Setting limits helps us remain objective, and allows us to spend more time removing impediments and empowering the individuals.
I also think that the Miyagi/Xavier dichotomy allows an opportunity for pairing. Matt and I are a great example: Matt can help our teams of software developers split stories effectively, knows which IT partners can remove our impediments ,and can tell when the team is over-thinking a software challenge; while I am great at team building, conflict resolution, and facilitating ongoing continuous improvement. Pairing with someone with a very different, complimentary skill set will allow you both to learn from each other and will ensure that your teams get the best of both worlds.