Aspiring Leaders don’t necessarily want to be managers

The Specialist Path to Leadership

steps to leadership

The traditional route to leadership has been through management.  As John Kotter argued in Leading Change:

Most of the successful white-collar workers in the past hundred years found reputable companies to work for early in their lives and then moved up narrow functional hierarchies while learning the art of management […] to progress beyond a certain level one had to learn about management, but not much about leadership.

In the digital age, the path to leadership is becoming more broader as more people are becoming leaders through non-traditional routes.   In this, the information age, the path to leadership through specialism is becoming common.

steps to leadership


There are a number of reasons for this:

1. Knowledge and specialism are more valued in the information age than in the product-centric industrial age where a strong background in Taylorism and scientific management was the route to leadership.

2. Specialists are headhunted all the time by other companies and if a company cannot offer leadership opportunity to its specialists they will simply go elsewhere.

3. Young Y generation and beyond do not want to spend their careers working in narrow hierarchies.   The brightest and best will look to find companies that champion specialism as a route to leadership.

The socio-economic landscapeo has changed considerably over the last three decades away from the industrial (mass-production, factory-based processes, compartmentalised and robotic activities) to the informational (consumerist, digital, global competition, deregulated markets, a knowledgeable and mobile workforce).  Leaders have evolved from driving production using fixed and directive behaviours to working with and through others using adaptive and enabling behaviours.  Rosabeth Moss Kantor neatly sums up this new leadership in When Giants Learn to Dance:

This new kind of business hero… must learn to operate without the might of the hierarchy behind them.  The crutch of authority must be thrown away and replaced by their own ability to make relationships, use influence, and work with others to achieve results

Specialists have made certain choices around intensifying their knowledge of their field rather than going down the traditional route of managing people.  This should not exclude them from being leaders.  The behavioural qualities of modern leadership are not exclusively cultivated in management petri dishes.  The worse scenario is to force a specialist into management.  Rather, in the words of Buckingham and Cohen, break the rule and look for other ways to include and support the specialist in their leadership journey outside of simply plugging them in to the management circuit.

Richard Kelly PhD.
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