Expert power is a concept that’s been growing increasingly popular in the world of management, consulting, and business in general. If you only read the topline descriptions of a lot of popular seminars & training programs, you’d think technical expertise is the key to effective management. But without expert power, management can have no hope of competent leadership. With this expertise, management can overcome any headwind.
The truth about expert power is more complicated than that and that’s what we’re going to look at in this article. First, let’s start by defining expert power.
Expert Power Definition
You can’t properly understand the advantages of expert power without a clear definition. Is expert power simply the power of expertise – the advantage that deep knowledge offers? Not exactly.
Expert power is a specific idea first codified by social psychologists Bertram Raven and John French in 1959. It is one of their five common types of power at play in the average workplace. If you possess a form of expertise that others recognize, admire, and want/need, you have expert power.
Expert power compels the people around you to respect you. However, the way they value you does not simply relate to your ability to perform your specific expertise. Expert power convinces the people around you to value your input, opinion, and presence in a wide variety of contexts. It’s this transferability and the way it translates into leadership that makes it similar to a superpower. It’s also what can make expert power somewhat dangerous. We’ll take a closer look in the next section.
Expert Power Example
Two different high-profile expert power examples will illustrate the benefits and drawbacks of this form of authority. In the first case, let’s look at Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Everyone knows that Gates founded Microsoft at a young age after dropping out of Harvard. Gates started the company from scratch and, as an expert software programmer, wrote a great deal of the most important early code himself. As Microsoft expanded, Gates continued to be actively involved in the company’s various new ventures. Gates’s expertise in Microsoft’s core products, as well as his expertise in all of the company’s business operations, made him an influential leader. This is especially true when you consider how many people Gates was in charge of.
Expert power is not always beneficial, however. To understand how it can be damaging, let’s take a look at Theranos, the once-championed, now-failed biotech company started by Elizabeth Holmes. Because of some early (and dubious) plaudits from her time at Stanford (and other privileges), Holmes was granted an amazing amount of authority for someone so young. She seemed to wield this authority effectively, for a time, commanding an almost cult-like following. It later became clear that she did not have the scientific or business expertise to justify her leadership.
Perhaps sensing this, Holmes filled Theranos’s Board of Directors with high-profile people who were experts in other fields, such as four-star General James Mattis and the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The expert power accorded to these people, despite the fact that their expertise was irrelevant to Theranos’s business, allowed Theranos to raise record-breaking amounts of venture capital. If Theranos is illustrative of nothing else, it at least teaches us the dangers of expert power.
Eventually the falseness of Theranos’s leaders’ expertise was revealed as a house of cards. The company had fraudulently misled investors and the public about its products. Theranos never came close to achieving the breakthroughs promised and the company no longer exists. If Theranos is illustrative of nothing else, it at least teaches us the dangers of expert power.
Expert Power in Leadership
The above examples show just how varied the effects of expert power in leadership can be. On the one hand, legitimate expert power in leadership can inspire a workforce to work more effectively and selflessly toward shared goals. On the other hand, irrelevant or illegitimately derived expert power can shield incompetence or other problems a business is facing. One thing is clear: expert power in leadership must be subjected to the same standards of examination as all other forms of expert power.
Considering both sides of the issue, it becomes obvious that expert power is ultimately like any other tool. It is not innately good or bad in the moral sense. Rather, its consequences have more to do with the intention with which it’s wielded. Expert power can move workforces to achieve great things. Expert power can help leaders unite highly disparate people toward a common purpose.
If you want to develop expert power, start by defining a subject matter that you want to gain expertise in. After that, all that’s left is to do the hard work required to become an expert in your field. For help with your team, consider a corporate training in storytelling or communication with MC – we’d love to help!
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