You Can't Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise

June 18, 2019


Wanda T. Wallace explains how to be a leader without being an expert in her handbook for "novices and experienced managers alike."

Most people develop careers and reputations by being an expert in something.  Thus, controlling risk, having the details at your fingertips, protecting the organization from costly errors, and executing are the reasons for success thus far. However, when responsibilities increase beyond the scope of expertise, cracks appear. Star performers feel lost, and organizations are disappointed by their inability to “lead.”

The leader needs to be able to span groups with a wide array of skills, abilities, attitudes, and perceptions—being able to make this shift is something that has rarely been addressed before now.

In her new book, You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise, leadership expert Dr. Wanda Wallace lays out a road map to success as a leader of people with a diverse range of talents. Wallace is President and CEO of Leadership Forum, Inc., where she coaches leaders, conducts seminars, and works with teams to improve leadership capability; and in this groundbreaking new book, she draws from that extensive experience to offer practical ways to navigate the transition from expert to non-expert leader.

A couple sentences from the book jacket summarize for us:


Above all, managing is about recognizing that while you may not do all the work of your team, you must enable the team to do the work. In this world, trust becomes essential.


If you still don't know if you want to read You Can’t Know It All, here’s a revised excerpt from the book’s introduction to help you out:




Once again Julia is going to be late. This isn’t like her—she prides herself on being punctual. But her flight from overseas was delayed and now her Uber is bogged down in traffic, so for the second time in two months she’s behind in getting to an Executive Committee meeting where she’s supposed to give an update on a global project she’s heading.

On impulse, she jumps out of the car and begins to hurry on foot, wheeling her bag behind her. But it’s not just the traffic or her lateness that is exasperating her.

How do I do this job? she asks no one.

After years of seeking a promotion from a role where her leadership authority was based on her unquestioned expertise in risk, she was entrusted with an important role. But she doesn’t know how to handle it. The job is completely alien to her experience.

She’s at the hub of several functional areas that are trying to implement “agile” technologies. She’s supposed to mobilize data scientists, IT architects, and many other specialists, but they don’t formally report to her. And she doesn’t understand those groups. She knows nothing about data science or IT architecture. 

“How do I talk to the ExCom about this when I’m not an expert in all the pieces?’ she asks.

She needs help but doesn’t know where to turn. And she realizes, as she sees her Uber drive away, that it was a mistake to try to make it on foot. The meeting is still too far away. She’s never going to make it on time.

“I’m going to fail,” she says. “I am failing.”


Julia—I’ve altered details, including her name, to protect her identity—is a coaching client of mine. She is the classic expert leader. She has a huge analytical brain. She’s brilliant at evaluating investment risk. She’s known for studying mountains of documents in order to grasp every detail of the issues facing her. 

During her eight years in her expert-leader position, she received nothing but excellent evaluations. Bosses and board members demonstrated unquestioned respect for her capabilities. Her many subordinates understood that she knew everything there was to know about her field, and they were used to meeting her very high standards. They considered her a good manager, even if she sometimes drove them batty seeking perfection. 

Despite the rave reviews, she had a hard time getting promoted. So when she was finally offered a big move up, she jumped at the chance. Privately, she was a little alarmed at the vagueness of the job description, but she believed that whatever the challenges, she could focus her analytical capabilities on them and figure out how to deliver results, as she always had. In the weeks leading up to the move, top management was duly impressed by her transformation into something of an expert on agile technologies.

When the transition came, it was just as scary as it had seemed. Although she was responsible for a global team, she was given very few direct reports. She had little in the way of dedicated resources. Although she kept reassuring her family and friends that everything was going well, she didn’t really know what to do in her job. She felt out of control. She didn’t know how to interact with colleagues who had widely different backgrounds and areas of expertise. She felt that people mistrusted her.


A New Kind of Leadership

Julia is facing a challenge that confronts almost everyone who seeks to move onward and upward in an organization: learning to lead in unfamiliar ways. Perhaps you find yourself in a similar place.

In most of the cases I’ve encountered in my decades of teaching, coaching, consulting, and leading workshops for global corporations, the main issue is transitioning from a position where authority and credibility are based on an individual’s deep expertise—financial knowledge, for example, or technical mastery—into a role where specific expertise is much less relevant, where a person’s leadership must encompass groups with an array of skills, abilities, attitudes, and perceptions.

In these situations, Julia’s question is universal.

How do I do this job?

This book answers that question.

The basic idea is that expert leadership—what Julia was doing for eight years—is fundamentally different from leading heterogeneous groups of people who lack a shared knowledge base.


This book grew out of my experiences coaching and teaching, my empathy for the people I was meeting, and my intense feelings about what I was seeing. The book is a synthesis of the understanding I’ve gained from working with a vast array of organizations and talent. It’s the essence of a new perspective on leadership.

And a key part of this view of leadership is my conviction that while expert and spanning modes are highly distinct, very few managers are all one mode or the other. I’ve seen that managers exist on a continuum on which expert and non-expert leadership are blended in varying degrees. Even the most narrowly focused expert leader has to interact with people outside that area of knowledge and take a broader view of the company at times. Even a company’s topmost leaders continue to use their expert knowledge as the basis of decisions. There is fluidity in jobs, too, with expert leaders sometimes becoming spanning leaders for a while, then returning to expertise-based roles, as we’ll see in chapter 9.

So I’m not talking about different species of manager. You’ll probably never be exclusively a spanning or an expert leader. Instead you’ll adopt different ways of leading for different issues, demands, and positions. My job is to help you understand what it takes to be both a great expert leader and a great spanning leader—and how and when to choose which mode and in which combination.


Excerpted from You Can't Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise
Published by Harper Business. 
Copyright © 2019 Wanda Wallace.
All rights reserved.



Dr. Wanda Wallace is President and CEO of Leadership Forum. Leadership Forum helps organizations recruit talent and manage it with strategic thinking. She works with world renowned financial services companies and other blue-chip clients. Previously, Wanda Wallace was Executive Vice President at Duke Corporate Education, Inc., Associate Dean of Executive Education at The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University as well as an Assistant Professor of Marketing. She divides her time between New York City and London.

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