The burden of superior expertize

Those who can, do. Those who can do better, teach.

The best leaders – the ones who truly know how to inspire and develop people are not just “crusaders for competence”. They are also educators, teachers, coaches.

They embrace, not ignore, their “burden of superior expertise.”

Recently two clients, both senior leaders in their respective organizations, were feeling overburdened and overtaxed by all the responsibilities on their shoulders – as professionals, leaders, wives and mothers.

Entirely coincidently each decided on a strategy to alleviate one of their burdens: getting family members to step up for dinner duty a few nights a week, instead of it being on them all/most of the time.

But their results were entirely different.

In a nutshell, one embraced the “burden of superior expertise” and the other didn’t.

“It’s just easier to do it myself.”

Wendy (not her real name) asked her husband if he would cook dinner. He agreed, and she told him what was for dinner (fish) and gave him the recipe to use. Then she went off to have some much needed down time. When she came back, the kitchen was a disaster, her husband was in a state, and she quickly found herself in a state too, as she tried to get dinner back on track. “I’m not doing that again,” she concluded as told me the story. “Frankly, it’s just easier if I just do it myself.”

“I didn’t get dinner off. But I got something even better.”

Amy (not her real name) asked her teenage sons to help with dinner. They agreed, and she told them what was for dinner (chicken) and then hung around. She quickly realized that while they were willing and enthusiastic, their skills weren’t quite up to the task. One son had never even peeled a potato before. So instead of handing dinner off to them as she had planned, she stuck around and guided and taught them.

“It was such a lovely experience, we chatted and laughed, and I learned more about what was going on with them at school and in their lives than I ever do when I ask them straight out. I didn’t get dinner off, but I got something better – lovely connection time with my sons and good company. Part of what I hate about dinner prep, I realized, is doing it alone.”

There’s more going on here than men vs boys

Ok, clearly there are many things going on here and there are lots of ways one can unpack this.

And there are some notable differences – not the least of which is one involves a grown man, whom one might reasonably expect to know how to cook, while the other involves two teenage boys, whom one might reasonably expect to know less about cooking.

When I dug in with Wendy a bit more the picture that emerged (which was entirely consistent with others things we’ve been looking at in our coaching) was one of high standards – not only what was done, but how it was done. It’s gotten her far and has pushed her to the top of her profession and her organization. She is known for excellence in all she does.  And she brings that same approach to how things are done at home too. She expected her husband to cook a fairly complicated (note: that’s my assessment) meal that she had done dozens of times. And no, pizza, or scrambled eggs on toast were not acceptable dinner options in her book.

In a nutshell, she had ignored her superior expertise, made assumptions about her husband’s capability with this particular recipe, and then got frustrated that her husband couldn’t pull off the dinner she had planned without her.

Amy, on the other hand, realized she had superior expertise and embraced that she needed to be the “gentle educator” to develop her sons’ cooking skills, rather than get frustrated with them.

This same dynamic plays out at work all the time.

The burden of superior expertise

People who are highly skilled or experienced, but who tend to have blind-spots with respect to awareness and empathy, often believe that knowing what and how to do something is “obvious”.

Because it is.

To them.

And then they quickly get frustrated and irritated when others are not doing things the “right” and “obvious” way.

“Doesn’t he see that we need to <insert what to them is the perfectly obvious thing to do.> How can he be so stupid!” they frequently explode in exasperated frustration.

They are blind to their superior expertise.

Unless and until they accept that they possess superior skills, knowledge, experience, decisiveness or whatever, they will continue to attribute other people’s “deficiencies” to laziness, stupidity, lack of caring etc. And so they will blame and judge others, rather than becoming “patient educators” and developing them.

When I point out their superior expertise to my clients, they might acknowledge it, but forget how they got it: they acquired it over time, often under the patient tutelage of others they respected, and who helped them develop their raw talent into a honed skill.

But strangely, they will also often deflect it, saying things like “What do you mean ‘superior expertise’; that’s just being egotistical.”

Yes, of course there’s egotistical superiority. And yes, those people make terrible colleagues.

“Crusader for Competence” or “Gentle Educator”

But “blind” and unacknowledged, objective superior expertise also makes for terrible leadership. 

Leaders who do not accept or acknowledge their own unique strengths (superior expertise) continue to expect everyone to be like them, to know what they know, and to do things the way they would do them. Once they accept that others do not have their superior skills (yet), they see that they have two choices: continue to judge, blame and attack others (be a “crusader for competence”), or help and develop others (be a “gentle educator”).

“You’ve talked about how frustrated you get when others don’t ‘get it’”, I might say to a client “when they can’t handle change as well as you, be as decisive as you, see things as quickly as you. You expect them to be like you, and it drives you nuts that they’re not. Well, there’s a reason for this: I call it the burden of superior expertise,” I explain.

“There’s a reason that you are the leader and they are not  – you know more. You have more experience. You can size things up faster.  The fact is, they aren’t exactly like you, and they aren’t going to perform up to the standard you hold yourself to. They can’t – yet. But if you want them to get to that point someday, you can help them by sharing your knowledge and experience with them, by developing them.

“You carry the burden of superior expertise. It’s a lonely place. You have added responsibilities – to teach, help and educate others.”

I’m in the same boat

I’m in the same boat as the coach here. I can either castigate my clients for their “lack of awareness” or emotional intelligence, or empathetically work to help them develop their awareness and emotional intelligence.

And yes, I am absolutely having to self-manage when it is so “obvious” to me how my client is the source of the very problems they are bemoaning! So I very much have to model the very thing I am coaching them for – and I try to be quite transparent about that, again in the service of their learning.

The best leaders embrace the burden of superior expertise – the responsibility they have to be “patient educators” rather than just “crusaders for competence.”

To turn George Bernard Shaw’s saying around: 

“Those who can, do. Those who can do better, teach.”

Your turn

I invite you to just gently contemplate when and with whom you might be frustrated with someone that they just don’t seem to “get it.” Then ask yourself gently:

  • How did you come to know what you know?
  • How long did it take you?
  • Who or what helped you along the way?
  • And lastly, if you were to start from the place of assuming that they don’t “get it” not because they are lazy, stupid or uncaring, but because they just don’t know something you know, what would you need to teach them first (being a “gentle educator” rather than “scolding schoolteacher, of course!) 


In kindness,

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