How to Lead Without Subject Matter Expertise

This week, while reading a Wall Street Journal article, I was reminded of something James Womack said at a lean conference about a decade ago. It was during a speech about value stream management. He pointed out a main key difference between how Toyota and most other companies managed product development. Unlike others, he said Toyota did so from a process perspective rather than a product perspective. Whereas traditional product development relied on a leader with deep product expertise, the lean approach de-emphasized this in favor of a leader’s ability to work across various processes and disciplines.

The article’s title is Why Real Coaches Want to Be Ted Lasso and the answer is right there in the tag line that follows He doesn’t know anything about his sport, but he knows how to get the best of his players. This show features a fictional American football coach managing an English football club. Despite the name, these are two very different sports. Hidden within the comedy are some nuggets for modern management.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Apparently the show is growing in popularity with some basketball coaches who find in it lessons for their own profession. Commenting on fictional soccer coach Ted Lasso, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is quoted, “If there is a lesson on the show, it is that culture beats insights. The guy knows nothing about soccer but he has created a great atmosphere with the club that leads to winning.” Culture, or the understanding of how people work and how things actually get done within an organization, beats product knowledge, content expertise, scheme. and so on. Kerr must have read Drucker.

The best coaches are the best managers of people. One of the show’s creators, Brendan Hunt, puts it this way, “I think it used to be an accepted leadership tactic to essentially abuse people. I’m sure there are people who are, like, Now we’re soft. We’re not soft. We’re just not morons. We see better ways to get the best out of people. Humiliating them in front of their peers is probably not high on the list.”

Ted Lasso knows nothing about association football or soccer. But that doesn’t matter, as the most important part of what he does is how he gets the best out of people by fostering an environment where everyone is capable of doing good work. This takes work, as he has to win over initially skeptical people mired in a losing culture.

Be Curious, Not Judgmental

Another key theme that’s quite applicable to leaders in any context is having the humility to be curious. At one point in the show, Ted Lasso quotes Walt Whitman, “Be curious. Not judgmental.” Leaders who are secure in themselves give power away rather than fight to keep it. They have the humility to admit that they don’t have all of the answers, curiosity to ask for help, and the wisdom to accept it. There are notable episodes when Ted Lasso gets out of the way and allows the people who have good ideas to put them forward.

On the one hand, knowing so little about the story may seem unrealistic, suitable for comedic fiction but not for high-stakes professional sports. On the other hand, in any given professional sports league there are traditional coaches who fail to get the most out of the highest tier talent, year after year. The most humble and curious of these coaches may be watching and learning from Ted Lasso.

Ted Lasso is a process expert rather than a content expert. He doesn’t know the product, but he knows the process. He doesn’t get the game but he gets the best out of people. In many professional fields, the people who get promoted into leadership often have strong technical backgrounds or in-depth knowledge of their fields. This “product” knowledge has helped them meet challenges in the past. However, as leaders rise higher in the organization, have broader scope of responsibility, or face more uncertainty, they must rely more on the expertise of those they lead.


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