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to be the expert or not: the expert's dilemma

I recently presented a workshop on transformational leadership and coaching to a group of hospital presidents (all physicians) from China. I described the calling of leadership as an intentional balance of skilled expert performance, when we stand tall as exquisitely competent, and cultivator, when we humbly help others find their own way. This balance takes us to a higher level of conscious leadership where we toggle between being the confident expert and the selfless facilitator of the nonlinear growth of others.

The sculpting of a physician in medical education and healthcare cultures leads to a professional identity that reveres expertise and competence. It can hide, rather than cultivate, the messy, uncomfortable and awkward process of growing. Further, what works in a medical practice, taking full charge of people and resources, isn’t suited to helping patients change, or leading teams or organizations where the limits of one’s expertise and control are everywhere you look.

This state of affairs isn’t limited to physicians and health and fitness professionals; it applies to all of us who have established an identity of competence in any domain of work and life from job stature to parenting to hobbies. Our attachment to our expert identities eclipses the ability to help others find and navigate their growth edges. Our need to be the expert, eagerly sharing our expert knowledge with the best of intentions, can get in others' way.

The process of becoming a coach helps people let go of the expert identity and learn how to cultivate growth. But first, new coaches learn why the expert identity can get in the way of helping others. They learn about three hazards of the expert role:

First hazard. Stepping on other’s autonomy

Self-determination theory developed by psychologists Ed Deci and Rich Ryan, is the most respected theory of human motivation backed by more than 1000 research studies. The theory holds that the primary organismic need of humans is autonomy – to hold the steering wheel of one’s decisions and life direction. The expert approach as an external source of motivation, advising and telling people what to do, doesn’t foster autonomy. The expert mode leads to either compliance (pleasing or avoiding conflict) or defiance (rebelling and resisting); hence it is an unstable source of human motivation.

Second hazard. People aren’t ready for your advice

The transtheoretical model of behavior change, developed by psychologist Jim Prochaska and collaborators, teaches us that for many behaviors at any a given moment most people are far from ready to change – their reasons to not change well outgun their reasons to change. What increases readiness to change is internal motivation (not imposed by experts) and confidence generated by cultivating multiple strategies to navigate around multiple challenges. Neither the challenges or strategies are visible to an expert’s eye. This is why motivational interviewing expert Robert Rhode advises experts to...

get out of sales and get into fishing.
Third hazard. The expert deprives others of their own self-discovery and learning

While it would seem to take longer to facilitate another person’s learning and growth than simply handing over thoughtful expert advice, the dispensation of advice doesn’t by itself help others cultivate sustainable change. Others need to generate their own new thoughts, perspectives, ideas, and experiences to change their own brains. That’s why coaches focus on open and provocative questions, deep listening, and creative reflections that cause others to think new thoughts in new ways that change their minds and behaviors a little at a time.

What I explained to the Chinese physician leaders is that it’s vital to find a balance between the two opposites - being the expert and being the coach, and to learn when to be one or the other. The cutting edge of leadership is the ability to find the off switch of one’s expert identity and the on switch of one’s inner facilitator, and use the switches wisely. The Chinese leaders smiled and nodded with appreciation.

Their gift to me, which made me gasp, was a precious Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing) printed on paper made of silk with calligraphy stamps sprinkled throughout. The silk book was in a gorgeous brocaded box. I turned to a page and found this quote from 4th century BC:

Of the best leaders, when their task is accomplished, their work done, the people all remark, “we have done it ourselves.”

Here's to the balance of expert and cultivator, wisdom of the ages, now supported by evidence. Onward and upward.

Coach Meg

More on the development of physician professional identity by Richard & Sylvia Creuss- see slide 28 for an expanded multi-faceted identity. Thanks to Carl Chan for referring me to the work of the Creuss's, faculty at Harvard Medical School Office of Global Education

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