Expertise and the Paradox of Power

November 17, 2015

By: Robert E. Quinn

Original post: From Bob Quinn’s Blog

There is a very impressive woman I have known for a long time. Professionally she spent her life as a public school teacher. One day we were discussing the work I was doing interviewing highly effective teachers.   I mentioned that many of them seemed to be masterful facilitators. They could ask relevant questions, listen deeply to student answers and then weave a meaningful, collective conversation. They seemed different from their peers. Their classrooms were positive organizations where learning accelerated. She immediately responded, “I could never do that facilitator thing.”

I asked for clarification.   She said, “I was always afraid that if I opened things up, they would ask me a question I could not answer.”

I loved this response. She is doing something few people do, she is telling the truth about her own limitations. She is also, in one simple sentence, exposing a central life fear held by everyone. It is the nightmare thought that we will lose all credibility if our ignorance is exposed.

An expert is a specialist who has knowledge and skill in a given area. An expert can do things others cannot do. When we say, “That person is a professional,” we usually mean that they have deep understanding and proficiency. We bow to their authority, even if they are in a lower position in a hierarchy.

As human beings we all come to realize that expertise is a source of power. As we build our credibility in a given area we become more powerful. People listen to us because we know what we are talking about. This understanding gives rise to the “expert role.” When we hold certain positions the people around us expect us to know what we are talking about. As they send these expectations, we accept them and we take on the “role” of expert.   We also take on the fear of being exposed.

In the above case, a competent, adult woman is terrified that children might find out she cannot answer all their questions. The terror is based on an assumption. If she could not answer a question, she would lose credibility, respect, power and the ability to do her job. Her life would fall apart.

In the book, The Positive Organization I share the case of a CEO. In his eleven years at the top of the company he created a stellar record. Yet the first year was a disaster and he almost lost his job. In real time he had to discover the assumptions of positive organizing and become a bilingual leader.

The change was difficult. It required a transformation in his identity. At the end of our interview he said that all the problems of his first year could be summed up in one word. He believed that he had to be the “expert.” He had to know all the answers in all situations. As he moved to the deeper understanding that crisis brings, he was able to transcend the expert role. He was able to relate to his people in a new way. He was able to listen and facilitate the emergence of collective intelligence. Groups could function as a whole. The organization became an innovative, learning organization that could move forward than competitors.

From small children to public school teachers to CEOs of large companies, we all understand the need to play the expert role. The need to play the expert role is based on one of the many fear-based assumptions at the heart of the conventional perspective. The shift out of the expert role requires a personal transformation and leads to an extraordinary discovery.

Several years ago I began working with a woman who was interested in positive organizing. She took a class and had several key insights. She began to apply the concepts of positive organizing in her job. She had a few small victories so she continued to experiment. Eventually she had some large victories and she became hungry to know all about the positive perspective. In the process she decided to enroll in a master’s program on executive coaching. I asked her how it was going.

She said, “The most striking thing is that I have learned to listen. It sounds easy, but it is not. I never knew what it meant to stop thinking about what to say next, but to instead, really listen and be with others in a relationship of mutual exploration and learning.”

She paused and then her face lit up and she said something very important. “I never dreamed that learning to listen could make me more powerful. In my job I am applying what I learned about listening. I am having more impact on the organization than I ever have. Because I have learned to listen, I am more powerful.”

There is a great paradox which cannot be understood or resolved by fear-based, conventional logic. Yet resolving it is the key to positive leadership. As we mature we grasp the expert role and hold it tightly. We believe it to be the source of our power and it is. Yet relying solely on expert power greatly limits our power. We do not reach our potential as leaders until we transcend the expert role and learn to create relationships in which collective intelligence can flourish.

Remember the positive perspective is inclusive. In becoming a facilitator we do not lose our expertise. Instead we gain and integrate the expertise of everyone.


Who do I know who is terrified of leaving the expert role?

What do I believe about the power of listening?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?