If You Think You're An Expert, Tread Carefully

It's truly astounding that, despite the unfettered access to information we enjoy and experience in modern society, there remains no shortage of people throughout history who were much wiser than many of us today.

Take Henry Ford for example (born in the 1860s), and the sage advice he offered regarding so-called "experts", when he was asked about his employees:

None of our men are ‘experts.’ We have most unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert because no one ever considers himself expert if he really knows his job. A man who knows a job sees so much more to be done than he has done, that he is always pressing forward and never gives up an instant of thought to how good and how efficient he is. Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind in which nothing is impossible.

Let that sink in for a minute.....

Ford was spot on, wasn't he? And yet many in our present day and age shoot themselves in the foot by completely ignoring the principles that Ford publicly espoused and admonished upon his employees.

When pursuing excellence, it's of paramount importance to remain in that fertile intersection of confidence and humility. Confidence that you have studied and worked diligently, that you can indeed perform, but yet humility that there is still much for you to learn and grow in. And not only the humility to learn from those who are overtly wiser and more competent than you, but also from those who you deem to be amateurs. 

There's a reason that the brightest in the world never stop reading, and never cease to practice their craft. If you ever hit a point where you think you "know it all," I simply cannot overstate how dangerous a position that is to be in.

The Implications for Leaders

For leaders seeking to garner loyalty from their followers, and mentors trying to teach someone under their tutelage, I guarantee they'll find greater success in this realm by giving their followers a window into the moments when they don't know the answer to something, or aren't fully equipped to handle a particular task.

Why is this?

Well, people tend to follow character more than they follow competence.

Competence is undoubtedly important, yes, but I argue that character is an even more critical trait. While it may seem counterintuitive, people will actually respect their leader all the more if they see they are willing to admit when they're wrong, that they have plenty of room to grow, and that they're still just as hungry for wisdom and knowledge as the lowest person on the totem pole.

Nobody likes to follow or learn from a know-it-all. But with someone they respect and admire as a result of their character, they'll follow them on a charge through the gates of hell itself.

You'll never be respected for your character if you perpetually shove the "expert badge" in peoples faces. There's nothing wrong with being excellent at something - in fact, excellence should really be a pursuit of every human - but part of excellence is refusing to be blind to the areas you can improve in, and not being afraid to show it.

The Implications for Entrepreneurs

It's well-established that passion is a necessary constituent of an entrepreneur's DNA.

However, one of the dark sides of passion is that it can morph into a form of elitism or obdurateness, where one becomes closed off to alternate views or approaches. The entrepreneur becomes so passionate about their chosen path, and so confident in their own infallibility, that they reject any input that doesn't align with their presupposed views.

This is something that John Hagel inspects in his wonderful article, Pursuing Passion. In the article, he says that the best type of passion for an individual or organization to adopt is the passion of the explorer.

These are people who see a domain, but not the path. The fact that the paths are not clearly defined is what excites them and motivates them to move into the domain. It also makes them alert to a variety of inputs that can help them to better understand the domain and discover more promising paths through the unexplored terrain. They are constantly balancing the need to move forward with the need to be present in the moment and reflect on the experiences and inputs they are encountering.

If you think you're an expert in something, I encourage you to closely examine how you posture yourself. And not only how you behave with the people around you, but also how you direct the conversations you hold with yourself in your own head.

Do you have room to take some of Henry Ford's advice, to never give up an instant of thought to how great you think you are? To live in a perpetual state of awareness that you have more to learn from those around you? (Hint: yes, you have room there, just like I do.)

How about embracing the passion of the explorer? That would be great, wouldn't it?

Making a decision is the first step, but decisions are not the same as taking action. Decide that you're going to do it, and then commit to it.