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Boss/Manger Leader vs Expert Leader Does it matter if the fire incident commander was never a competent company officer? Does it matter if the company officer had limited time as a firefighter? Does …

Boss/Manger Leader vs Expert Leader

Does it matter if the fire incident commander was never a competent company officer? Does it matter if the company officer had limited time as a firefighter? Does it matter is the chief was an expert firefighter?

The recent business practice of generalized management is getting some new scrutiny. Companies are finding that the lack of expertise in the core work of their organizations is leading to troublesome decision making and major disconnect between managers and workers. The fire service has embraced this philosophy and members have turned towards studying “management” and obtaining “leadership” education and abandoned the trade skills that make up the “core work” of the organization. We have to remember we are called the “Fire Department” not the “Management Department” and our leaders need to have expertise in the trade before they can be effective leaders. This doesn’t mean just time on the department but it means moving from apprentice firefighter to journeyman firefighter and on to master firefighter before moving on to the next rank or position.

A recent research project tackled the question on how the leaders’ level of expertise influences performance companies. The research is presented in a paper titled, A Theory Exploring how Expert Leaders Influence Performance in Knowledge-Intensive Organizations. It is written by Amanda H. Goodall and Agnes Bäker. The primary focus being, does the leader need to be competent in the company’s core work or can they just be a professional manager? The results of the research will not surprise anyone who has served under both types of leaders. In short the leaders who have expertise in the core work of the company are more effective and get better results and the employees are happier and the company’s with such leaders attract higher skill levels and committed employees to the company. The research did not look at fire departments but looked at several different technical performance based companies. The research notes that:

              “U.S. hospitals led by medically trained doctors, as opposed to professional managers, were more likely to be ranked higher in performance. In sports setting, US basketball coaches who were former All-Stars players with long playing careers were associated with the greatest winning success. In the competitive industry of Formula 1 Championships, the performance of contractor teams (e.g. Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren) were examined across the whole history of the industry. Team principals who were former racing drivers made the best leaders.” ……”What can be observed is that outsider CEO hires have risen since the early 1990s. A study on CEO succession in the world’s largest 2,500 public companies revealed that in 2011 twenty-two percent of new CEOs came from outside their organizations, compared to fourteen percent in 2007. This study also showed that insider CEOs tend to stay for longer and leave their companies with higher shareholder returns, supporting our proposition that expert knowledge contributes positively to leadership performance.”………

             …“Expert knowledge is acquired through a combination of technical education, domain-specific knowledge, practice and experience, it combines explicit and tacit knowledge and it might also be thought of as a deep understanding that aids intuitive decision-making, akin to wisdom. We suggest that when a leader has expert knowledge in the core-business it influences decision-making through a process of ‘expertise-based intuition’, an idea that combines the work on intuition and decision-making with the literature on expertise”…

             …“In some U.K. universities it has been possible for non-research focused academics to go into senior leadership positions e.g. vice chancellors, these heads may include academics who dropped out of research completely at an early stage in their career, or those who maintain minimal research output. The evidence shows that university presidents who follow this kind of career trajectory are associated with reduced organizational performance, compared with presidents who were instead among the best researchers. Thus, better researchers go on to make better university presidents”……

             …“Arguably, industry experience is valuable, but not in isolation. For example, it might be claimed that managers in hospitals have a great deal of knowledge about healthcare administration, finance and health policy because they have worked in their sector for many years. However, professional managers do not have expert knowledge in the core-business of hospitals which is the practice of medicine; only clinically-trained medics have this.”……..

             …“Work environments that are found to be managed by supervisors who are supportive and not overly controlling foster creativity. Expert leaders understand the conditions that are required because, as suggested above, they have direct knowledge of the field and understand the culture and value system of core workers, their incentives and motivations. Thus, they will likely trust their employees with greater autonomy. In contrast, to compensate for their lack of core-business knowledge, a non-expert or a professional manager may be more likely to use managerial processes they (as managers) have learned through training, and also from their own experience of being supervised by other managers.”…..    

             …“A manager leader may have equal levels of executive power, but expert leaders are likely to have both power and influence particularly among the core workers.”……

             …”Given our promotion of expert leadership, this paper is implicitly critical of the empirically-documented rise of the professional manager and generalist CEO. Whilst acknowledging possible vulnerabilities, we argue that expert leaders can be expected to improve organizational performance through both their actions and decisions, and also the signals they convey specifically, we propose several mechanisms through which expert leaders might improve firm performance. By implementing a knowledge-based strategy; by creating an attractive environment for core workers, and appropriate goal setting and evaluation; by hiring the best workers; and finally, by signaling credibility to current and potential employees and other important stakeholders.”

So is the era of the generalist manager coming to a close? Are businesses now recognizing the academic approach to management is not providing the needed leadership to produce results? Will organizational psychologist acknowledge that having real experience in the core-business (in our case working in business of delivering and commanding emergency services on the street) really does have an impact on decision-making and that you just can’t be assigned anywhere that you don’t have the technical competence or experience to base your management on?

So the next time someone says you don’t have to be a good firefighter in order to be a good officer or chief don’t believe the hype. It was a short 20 year academic management blunder based on theory of management practices and not people or results. The plug in play manager theory is proven wrong. When making promotions or appointments look for the experts in your department if you want results and individuals who will positively influence the work force and stop promoting the professional resume’. There are no experts in leadership because leadership is situational. There are however individuals who have expertise in their organizations core work that provides them with the decision making skills to be great leaders.

For a complete copy of the paper:  Download PDF


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Comment by Frank Ricci on January 9, 2015 at 11:43am

Great post!!!! Having a balance between Education, experience and knowledge are key to our success. Mentoring between ranks is also critical to assist the individual from transferring from one rank to the next. Merit Matters! 

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