Recently, much has been written about the looming end of expertise. Assuming this is accurate, it does not bode well for leaders. The complexity of successfully leading today’s businesses calls for more expertise, not less.
Two camps assert that experts are a dying breed. The first of these contends that there is a “glut of knowledge” that increasingly makes us more ignorant. This is addressed by Warren Berger in his book “A More Beautiful Question.” He notes that “as our collective knowledge grows—as there is more and more to know, more than we can possibly keep up with—the amount that the individual knows, in relation to the growing body of knowledge, is smaller.” Berger’s assertion is easily supported by the fact that over 2 million new non-fiction books are published every year! Experts simply cannot keep up; therefore, some assume that they are moving toward extinction.
The second camp has been defined by the author of “The Death of Expertise,” Tom Nichols. His contention is that there is a growing trend of hostility toward established knowledge. He asserts that a significant percentage of the American populace are no longer merely uninformed; they are “aggressively wrong” and are unwilling to learn. They openly reject established experts in virtually every field, accepting the notion that everyone knows as much as the so-called experts. Nichols contends that this trend makes us vulnerable to all kinds of ills, from the dumbing down of society to its very existence.
The challenge we face, then, is whether we will give up on learning as a futile effort in the face of ever-expanding knowledge, thereby increasingly replacing expertise with an endless array of unsupportable opinions.
In considering this, I have wondered, was there ever a time when it was possible to truly be a highly respected, broad-based expert—when one could study so deeply and broadly as to be accurately acknowledged as a “general expert?”
I have discovered that the answer is yes. The time was the 19th century, the place was the northeastern United States, and the man who was widely respected as a general expert was Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is said that at one point in his life, Emerson had read virtually every book in the Harvard University library.
While it is no longer possible to read every book at Harvard (or at any other university), Emerson had insights regarding learning that are as valuable today as they were when he revealed them in 1837. He suggested three components of learning would assure the expertise of leaders: nature, books and action.
Nature provides the most important element of the three since it surrounds us. Emerson was a practitioner of observing the world in order to ascertain the underlying laws that govern it. He was a questioner, suggesting that the basis of expertise was to recognize what you don’t know and to be inquisitive, thereby learning more by discovery than by classroom drills.
“Books,” Emerson said, “inspire the active soul.” They offer the influence of the past, and the deep thinking and perspectives of others. He suggested that we should be “creative readers” who use books as “stimuli to attain our own sight regarding principles that create value for ourselves and others.”
Finally, Emerson asserted that “thought [without action] can never ripen into truth.” He defined his own expertise by saying, “Only so much do I know, as I have lived.” Truly, expertise is manifest in the crucible of action.
John Seeley Brown, co-founder of an innovation think tank called the Deloitte Center for the Edge, has said that in facing the sheer volume of information rushing at us today, “what matters… is [your] ability to triangulate, to look at something from multiple sources, and construct your own warrants for what you choose to believe…asking all kinds of peripheral questions.” Emerson’s three components—nature, books and action—provide the basis for that triangulation.
Today’s leaders must be lifelong learners who, as Warren Berger asserts, must “maintain or rekindle the curiosity, sense of wonder, inclination to try new things, and ability to absorb that served [them] so well in childhood.” This youthful absorption with learning comes by observing and questioning the world around us (nature), reading (books), and experience (action).
We mustn’t let expertise die. We cannot read whole libraries, but we can lead and learn with the process, energy and enthusiasm once displayed by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.