Chapter 2: Technical Competence vs Technical Expertise

There is a high expectation that the leader be competent in the assigned task or specialty he is supervising. This expectation exists to some level in all endeavors. Workers want the boss to know what they do and to have, at least, a rudimentary understanding of how it is done. At a minimum, the leader should be familiar with the task. Even better, he should have some proficiency at it.

Employees at all levels consistently cite the importance of technical competence in their leaders. First, this is a respect issue. Second, it is a direction issue. Employees correctly believe that if the boss doesn’t know what they do and how they do it, he will be unable to make the right decisions on how to effectively employ them, implement changes that positively impact performance, and improve the team’s ability to capitalize on future opportunities. `

Even more important is the willingness of the leader to admit when he doesn’t know how to do something. Those Marines (and employees) who do the task daily don’t expect the leader to be an expert on the task they routinely perform. They do expect him to be familiar with it and to take an interest in it. When the supervisor asks questions about what the employees are doing and sincerely listens to the responses, he establishes a positive relationship with his employees. When you, as the leader, take the time to talk to the person repairing equipment in the repair ship, the message comes thorough loud and clear: “I care about you and what you are doing.” Employees recognize this and tend to respond with increased loyalty and dedication.

Manager, boss, foreman, etc. All titles used to describe that person with responsibility for getting a job done by directing other people. The key point is that this person must accomplish a certain amount of work beyond that which one person is considered capable of doing. They are expected to oversee the production of others to get that work done.

Often this person occupies their position because of demonstrated proficiency at the task they are supervising. For example, a carpenter may be great with his tools and very efficient at doing his job. One day he is told he will now supervise three other carpenters. He becomes the foreman. No big deal really, as he generally works alongside the three of them, setting the pace, and taking corrective action right away when one of his crew does something wrong. This foreman is often cited for his ability to “make it happen” and his behavior is reinforced with this praise. Perhaps this foreman gets promoted and then supervises three foremen yielding the same results. This situation is not limited to the field. Consider the accounting supervisor who is known for her attention to detail. Nothing got by her when she was a clerk, and now, nothing gets by her as a supervisor. The reason nothing gets by her is that she is basically replicating the work of her team as she very closely rechecks their work. Or perhaps the super sales person, who is now the sales manager.

These people fail to recognize they are no longer getting paid to actually do the work. They are getting paid for the work to get done – by others. They are relying on their own expertise to get the job done rather than teaching others to do it. Unfortunately, we often end up rewarding them for the result rather than the method.

Successful leaders know and understand the jobs they supervise. They are able to make decisions based on that knowledge, which increases their credibility. Successful organizations recognize the new skills and responsibilities necessary for continued success at higher levels, and they work to put qualified people into those positions of greater impact and responsibility.

The willingness to “get dirty” once in a while demonstrates respect for the people being led. It enables the leader to understand the conditions the employees face and to craft strategies to help them succeed. The leader who knows the requirements of the tasks is better able to troubleshoot when things go wrong, and to help employees. Competence also enables leaders to know to detect when they are not being told the whole story.

The issue of technical competence vs. technical expertise is critically important. Yet, it is one that many leaders fail to grasp. The most effective leaders are able to balance this approach. It is a fine line, but one worth walking.

Wally Adamchik is the President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. You can visit him on the web at or email him at

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