Expertise has long been an essential component of leadership. Superior knowledge could fuel an employee’s rise in an organization, or enable an entrepreneur to start a business and run it.
Bill Gates is not only a brilliant businessman, but got his edge as an outstanding computer programmer. Gates knew things his underlings didn’t know, and his technical expertise helped validate his status as the chief decision maker at Microsoft for decades. In the 1930s, Edwin Land’s scientific grasp of light polarization enabled him to found and head up Polaroid. Boston Red Sox owner John Henry began as an imaginative nerd who devised an algorithm to mechanize commodities trading, enabling him to make a fortune in those markets.
All these pioneers eventually hired others with skills they lacked, but their superior knowledge remained basic to their leadership roles. Knowledge is power, and greater knowledge has always correlated strongly with greater influence in business. Yet that time-honored relationship–which once seemed nearly a law of nature–is now dissolving. The key factor in its dissolution is the democratization of expertise.
Traditionally, the distribution of expertise in society resembled a pyramid. At the bottom lay a broad base of many people who knew relatively little about something–say, securities investing. Climbing through the levels of the pyramid, you would find progressively fewer and fewer people who knew more and more per capita about the subject, such as Wall Street Journal readers, serious investors, and financial industry professionals. Atop the grand pile sat the world-class experts like Warren Buffet and Peter Lynch–very few in number, but holding highly concentrated expertise.
Technology has been leveling that pyramid. The Internet has opened access to troves of knowledge formerly restricted to elites and professional cadres. For example, travel agents once had exclusive access to databases for airline schedules and fares. Now, any consumer can open Expedia or Kayak and book air travel, hotel lodging, and car rental unassisted. This dispersal of travel information has coincided with a steep decline in the number of travel agencies in the United States, from 33,715 in 1996 to 15,564 in 2010–partly because of mergers.
In fact, consumers now do many jobs on an unpaid basis that professionals previously handled for a salary. In my book, Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, I offer a field guide to this emerging world of self-service. Customers now pump their own gasoline, scan and bag their own groceries, download and complete legal forms for contracts and leases, and even draft their own beers in some bars–working for free in all cases. But such shadow work has also penetrated the office environment, as digital technology dissolves knowledge monopolies that once supported organizational pyramids.
Just as shadow-working patients diagnose their own ailments on Wikipedia, staff in many industries can now analyze an emerging situation by consulting the same information as their bosses. Search engines and keywords undermine information monopolies at a speed heretofore unknown–giving private, restricted knowledge an ever-shorter half-life before it becomes public.
In journalism, for example, the scoop once ruled newsrooms. Every reporter’s goal was to break a story before the competition. Today, editors who chase scoops are living in the 20th century. The Internet communicates breaking news stories around the world almost instantaneously. The edge goes not to the newspaper, TV or radio station, or website with the scoop, but to the one that relates the story in the richest, most compelling way, including audio, video, images, and illuminating commentary.
In this environment, the business leader of today gets less advantage from knowing things that her underlings, or even her competitors, don’t. Leadership now is less about superiority of raw information and more about creative pattern recognition; the leader views the same data as everyone else, but reaches a different conclusion.
Take something like global climate change. Even Pope Francis has recognized it–there is no trade secret here. But the creative commercial mind sees ways in which addressing climate change presents new business opportunities.
The Internet has externalized memory. Instead of knowledge being archived in the nerve cells of human brains, it now resides on servers. Google can take you to almost anything you need to know. Humans cannot compete very well with computers in the task of massive data storage. But digital technology does rather poorly at solving analog problems. Computers cannot match the human brain for finding analogies between disparate elements; they lack a gift for metaphor. Largely for this reason, computer-generated poetry is uniformly awful.
In contrast, pattern recognition is a strong point of the human mind. Noticing how the structure of a manufacturing system, say, might resemble the organization of a beehive is the way that many of the most powerful innovations in business sprout–in the mind of a creative human. Leadership in the future depends less on knowing things others don’t know, and more on seeing new relationships among facts available to all of us.
Craig Lambert, PhD, is the author of Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. He served as a staff writer and editor at Harvard Magazine for more than two decades. His work has appeared in publications ranging from Sports Illustrated to The New England Journal of Medicine. He received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and his PhD, also from Harvard, in sociology. For more information, please visit Craig’s website and follow Craig on Twitter .