Experts Advise, Leaders Decide

Nobody can give you wiser advice than yourself. – Cicero In almost every business and organization there are specialized, and some would say, arcane subjects that require the insights of niche experts. In my experience these are usually in the areas of legal matters (most with sub specialties of their own), organizational financial planning and execution, information technology and cyber defense, medical issues and others.  Leaders need and must use the expert counsel of individuals who are thoroughly versed in her/his area of specialization. It is essential that complex decisions be informed by the best knowledge of the choices and understanding of the consequences.

I’ll offer some advice on asking for, receiving, and acting on advice from my experiences in large organizations over the years.  These are some of the common mistakes by senior leaders that I’ve encountered:

  • Deferring to the judgment of the subject matter expert (SME) rather than absorbing the knowledge and applying it to a decision in the context of the greater organizational benefit. Most SMEs have a relatively narrow view of the greater good and tend to be very risk averse. They will almost always suggest the path that has zero risk (and zero chance of reward).
  • Not asking the tough questions, relying unconditionally on the expert’s view, not challenging the premise or history, not truly understanding the details and root causes within the issues.
  • Looking for an accomplice instead of solid advice, trying to confirm one’s own pre-conceived path instead of getting a deep understanding that leads to the best course of action.
  • Avoiding risk, seeking the outcome with little or no exposure to misfortune or external scrutiny. This is especially true in government organizations of all kinds.

My advice:

  • Experts advise, leaders decide.
  • Ask the tough questions, understand the entire issue, have the SME show you the numbers, the law, the facts. This is the real role of experts; to provide the facts that matter and help leaders understand what those facts mean. To do that, leaders must demand all the facts first hand.
  • Leaders who seek an accomplice, someone chosen to validate a pre-conceived view, are disowning their fundamental responsibility for making the best decisions to advance the mission and organization. It does serious damage to the company and to the credibility of and confidence in the leader. Just don’t do it.
  • Informed risk taking is essential to effective leadership, there are few real rewards that don’t entail risk of some kind. It’s an egregious leadership failing to “play to not lose.” Leaders must “play to win”.

In earlier posts I wrote at length about decision making.  Seeking, understanding and acting effectively on SME advice is a critical enabler to a leader’s basic job: making sound decisions and exercising exceptional judgment.  This is how to do that.

In giving advice seek to help, not to please, your friend. -Solon

Keith Stalder, #44

Copyright © 2015 Keith Stalder & Associates, LLC. All rights reserved.

Keith Stalder has over 40 years of leadership experience in organizations from the very large and established to small technology start ups and everything in between.  With a broad and deep appreciation for, and understanding of, the fundamental challenges of organizations and businesses, both in government and the private sectors, his passion is to help all organizations become all that they aspire to.  He is the founder of Keith Stalder and Associates, LLC, a company dedicated to advancing organizational visions and fundamentally transforming how businesses everywhere are run.  Visit for more information. 

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