A Surgeon as HUD Secretary? How Leaders can Succeed Without Deep Experience

By: Sim Sitkin

President-elect Donald Trump is steadily filling cabinet posts, and many of his prospective appointees — like Trump himself — do not have government experience, or specialized knowledge of the departments they’ll lead. What most of them do have, however, is experience in business, where it’s common for leaders of complex organizations not to have previous experience in the organization’s industry. It can work, but there are dangers.

Here are three of them, according to Sim Sitkin, the Michael W. Krzyzewski University Professor of Leadership and Professor of Management and Organizations at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

I. General ability does not always equal specific ability.

There are general skills and there is specific local knowledge — and both are important. General skills are not universal necessarily –some folks are great in a crisis, others are great in systematically building a strategy or an organization’s capability, and others are great at inspiring. Very few can do all of these things.

II. The support team matters.

It is also possible for a leader to surround him or herself with individuals with experience in the specialized issues and history so long as the leader and their team have a relationship that allows for knowing when to listen to and follow history and when a change is required that goes against received wisdom.

III. Hubris is a danger.

Most institutions are complicated, their relationships can be delicate, and their historical trajectory matters. It is important for smart and accomplished leaders to avoid believing their own press and jumping to the conclusion that they understand the nuances too quickly. No matter how good you are, it takes some time to understand the complexities of anew situation — and thus to know what of your general knowledge, experience, and intuition transfers and what needs minor tweaking or major overhaul. You need to both listen and hear,and you need a certain amount of patience to complement a bias for action.

Sim Sitkin is the Michael W. Krzyzewski University Professor of Leadership and Professor of Management and Organizations at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

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