Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Are Technical Experts Better Leaders?

James K. Stoller, Amanda Goodall, and Agnes Baker have published an intriguing Harvard Business Review article titled, "Why the Best Hospitals are Managed by Doctors."   In the piece, they state the following based on their research: 

Support for the idea that physician-leaders are advantaged in healthcare is consistent with observations from multiple other sectors. Domain experts – “expert leaders” (like physicians in hospitals) — have been linked with better organizational performance in settings as diverse as universities, where scholar-leaders enhance the research output of their organizations, to basketball teams, where former All Star players turned coaches are disproportionately linked to NBA success, and in Formula One racing where former drivers excel as team leaders.

The final sentence surprised me a bit.  I'm a lifelong basketball fan, and the conventional wisdom certainly has been that All-Star players do not always make the best coaches.   Consider the struggles of NBA greats such as Dave Debusschere, Isaiah Thomas, Bob Cousy, Willis Reed, Elgin Baylor, Bill Cartwright, Kurt Rambis, and Wes Unseld.  In addition, who can forget Magic Johnson's very short coaching career with the Lakers?   He won just 5 of 16 games and quit coaching.   

Given the conventional wisdom, I took a look at the research.  Goodall wrote a paper with Lawrence Kahn and Andrew Oswald about NBA coaches.   They studied NBA coaches from 1996-2004, and they found that former all-stars have a higher coaching winning percentage than non-stars, and former players overall do better than non-players.  The results were statistically significant.  I decided to probe a bit further though.  What about championships?  Did former players excel at winning championships as coaches?  Here are the all-time results for professional basketball championships:  
  • 13 former NBA All-Stars have won championships as a coach, totaling 18 championships. 
  • 9 former players, who never earned All-Star status as players, won 24 championships. 
  • 10 men who never played in the NBA won championships, totaling 28 championships. 
Yes, 22 former players earned championships vs. only 10 non-players.   That's a large difference. However, only 41% of the coaches who won championships were all-stars, and only 26% of the championships were won by coaches who were all-star players. Moreover, many All-Stars earned a single championship as a coach, while many non-stars or non-players built a legacy of multiple championships (consider Popovich's tenure with the Spurs as the most recent example).   Interesting... I'm not sure what to make of this data, but I certainly think it's worth further investigation.  Do similar patterns hold true in other professions?  

1 comment:

Elaine Seat said...

It seems to me that maybe the focus should be on other factors than All-Star ability in their field. What about decision-making and that perhaps having expertise in the area provides inside information to those with high levels of decision making skills who move on to leadership positions.

Technical experts who are missing interpersonal skills can be troublesome, but technical experts who also have high levels of relationship building and leadership skills can be masterful leaders.

I'm thinking that the focus is mis-guided when it is on their All-Star player or expert performance with out considering how they stack up on what we know to be the skills of successful leaders/coaches/managers.

Just musings...but, also...is there a connection between being a Technical Expert and/or a super athlete? I've known some really clumsy scientists...and some athletes that struggle with differential equations. LOL. I'm not sure how the mix is Technical Expert matches up with superior motor skills.