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How do leaders overcome Expert Syndrome?

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When I was making the transition from being a market research expert to a divisional leader and Board Director I spent a lot of time reading books on leadership and attending courses. It was a slow process and meant I worked even longer hours, which had a detrimental effect on my health and family life.

Since becoming a leadership coach in 2003 I have trained, mentored and coached many leaders suffering from Expert Syndrome. The first thing I notice in most of these struggling leaders is that they focus almost entirely on what they do. They are task focused, so there is very little attention on why they are doing what they do, and even less on how they lead. 

My experience has shown there are six key areas that help these people to succeed in a more sustainable way. These aren’t related to the what of leadership but to the why and how:

Identity

Do you view your leadership as being rooted in your expertise? Many leaders whose identity comes through their expertise find themselves in a role where they suddenly realise their expertise is no longer enough.

From my experience of working with leaders suffering from this ‘Expert Syndrome,’ what most of them are missing is self-awareness in the context of leadership. So, of course, they don’t know who they are as a leader because their identity comes from what they DO, not who they ARE.

A symptom of not knowing who you are as a leader is that you feel on shaky ground with regard to leadership, and are uncomfortable with your lack of expertise. After all, you got to be a leader in the first place because you were an expert. It’s a Catch-22.

Another symptom is not having a consistent way of behaving, which results in the people around you being unsure about what to expect from you. That means a chronic lack of trust – and who pulls the stops out for someone they don’t trust? You can’t really expect to be able to trust someone yourself who doesn’t trust themselves.

To become a great leader you need to know who you are as a leader and the difference you want to make through your leadership. Having a clear sense of identity means that you know your why as a leader, which means that you are more likely to win the hearts and the minds of your people, which will give you more influence and a greater ability to inspire and motivate them to give their best. And a key way to determine your identity is by creating your personal, authentic leadership brand.

Balance

One of the clear patterns from my work with leaders with Expert Syndrome is that many of them struggle to get balance in their lives. The symptoms include: working long hours and not having enough time to spend with your friends and family; not feeling happy and not having enough enjoyment in your life; not having the time to look after yourself so you can stay healthy; and not having the energy to continue to be successful at work and do all the things you want to do in your life. You might even worry that if it carries on like this you will burn out.

If this applies to you, then you need a wider definition of success that enables you to be happy, healthy and a sustainable high performer. I call this Triple H Leadership.

Once you have got these two foundational areas of identity and balance sorted out the next most important thing is to know how to step up and be a leader. And that’s the subject of my next blog…

Sue Coyne


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