Dan Erwin: Leadership

3 Core Characteristics of a Real Expert

Or. . .how to know that the advice you’re getting is genuine expertise? One of the more important issues in my life and certainly in most of my clients over the years has been the issue of expertise. Does this guy know what he’s talking about? Can I trust his conclusion? The issue of trust is central for important matters. When I’m asking for insight, I want to know that the person I’m talking to has information of value. That if I were to follow up on his recommendation, I’d get what I want: the desired service or product.

“You can’t beat brains,” said President John Kennedy of the intellectuals and technicians he assembled in his cabinet. Kennedy was probably the greatest political champion for the virtues of expertise. But the champions of expertise have been on a serious downhill slope ever since. It’s pretty clear that all over America since the 1960s diverse groups have rejected expertise, especially that of social scientists, policy specialisms, climatologists and plenty of other disciplines. This is true of movements on both the political left and right. Although individuals and groups speak a different language, they’re often making the same point: human mastery over the world is profoundly limited. Just so, many believe that rational planning too should be limited. The anti-vaxx machinery is just one of today’s many rejections of expertise. There’s always been an anti-intellectual orientation in our country, but right now that anti-intellectual orientation is on steroids from both lefties and righties.


But let’s set that aside and just suppose you’re in a place where you want some expertise. Not necessarily life or death, but more ordinary job and relational expertise? How can you know the person you’re talking to is a real expert and can be trusted?

In a very helpful analysis of that subject, Kim Smith, a PhD student at the University of South Wales (UK) set out to actually define the core characteristics of the expert in most any field. Characteristics available to most any thoughtful layperson.

In a fine piece of qualitative research, Smith first took into consideration the national, cultural and specialisms that would affect the definition of that issue. Included as well were various governments. He also recognized that the perspectives and definitions of an expert would vary from government to government and department to department. He also took chartered organizations into his purvey. Chartered organizations are institutions that require members with a pedigree of high professionalism, guaranteed by meeting specific membership criteria.

Uniquely (I would never have thought of this), he researched the general definitions of expertise required for legal experts, such as that provided in the Academy of Experts (2019): “An Expert Witness can be anyone with knowledge or experience of a particular field or discipline beyond that to be expected of a layman. The Expert Witness’s duty is to give to the Court or tribunal an impartial opinion on particular aspects of matters within his expertise which are in dispute.” This type of definition provides assurance of the integrity of the “expert” and his/her expertise in courts of law..

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