Value expertise but don’t defer

I was at a workshop where a man introduced himself like this: when I did my doctorate at Insert Ivy League University Here.

Now there’s nothing wrong with establishing credentials in particular when they are relevant to the discussion, which in this case they were not.

What he had done was to anchor the rest of the group around his primacy as an intellect, which he certainly was. Without needing to say it directly, he had sent a signal that his views were ipso facto going to be better and to disagree with him if you dared .

Many subsequently and unconsciously looked to him to lead. Those who dared speak cast glances in his direction, tacitly seeking his approval.

This is how individually and collectively we agree to defer and give away power.

People anchor others in many ways, sometimes overtly (which makes it easier to detect) but often subtly.

They do this by linking themselves by association with someone or something else they believe has value.

‘Having been a CEO a couple of times,’ we begin, or ‘my partner is the head honcho at such and such’.

These statements are meant to reorient the way we see and respond to the speaker. They can be distinguished from everyday sharing or loving pride because those do not shut others down.

Without even being aware of what we are doing, we use this as a controlling device that allows us to be right, and better.

But better than what or who and why?

Why are we so afraid of being wrong? Is it the desire for approval? The fear of rejection?

An irony: that this man’s thesis was on a niche area in biochemistry the discussion at hand – digital literacy.

By all means if you are going to stake your claim and fight it out, do so where you have knowledge. It’s silly to wave your medical degree at a law issue or claim the higher ground on art because you run a business.

But even when there’s an expert providing on-point input, we are entitled to a view. That view is our personal taste.

I am not suggesting all opinions are well-informed, expert and non-expert opinion differs. Someone trained in a particular discipline has more insight but certainly more facts. This should not make us feel intimidated or afraid to question nor should they demand it.  The best teachers I know welcome questions.

We can welcome difference, not fear it.

Expert opinion itself varies. Toss three experts in a room and you rarely get agreement, but what is happening (if it’s a good debate) is the refinement and growth of ideas, not the stifling of debate.

It’s only by probing the edges that we grow.

Sometimes a person outside a specialist area challenges the status quo and moves things forward.

Being an outsider allowed Mina Bissell to approach cancer in a new way that pretty much suggests how we were looking at it was flawed and gives real hope for a cure. To keep the space open she encourages curiosity and structures her team in a way that consciously brings in difference.

We need an additive approach to leadership, one that encourages us to hold multiple and even contradictory ideas in mind at the same time.

This is about approaching life with an and-and mindset, rather than an either-or view that shuts things down.

And we are allowed to express our opinion, and we allow others to do so too, and we value credentials and expert opinion, and we do not defer.

This requires a bit of EQ.


The difficulty with ‘by-association’ living is what happens to us when things shift, as they invariably do.

If you believe that your worth comes from the status of your partner or job then if they change, who do you become? If you get your kicks from being right at others expense and one day you’re not, who are you then?

We need to know ourselves with reference to something more solid, some internal understanding that our self or our worth does not depend on others agreeing with or approving of us.



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