The Myth of Expertise

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The man whose expertise served to prevent a Great Recession


“Trust the experts; they’ve studied these things. Trust the experts; they know more than you do.”

Leave your life to “experts,” and the world’s greatest problems may never be solved.

“Expertise,” like “leadership,” is an inflated term. Expertise requires not success or having produced something of value, but having had enough experience with something to claim to know more of it than any other person.

At a recent Annual Meeting of Fraternity & Sorority Advisors, one may come to believe he or she is surrounded by a group of experts. Here is a person who has spent his life working with students, and so he understands their social constructs better than any other. Here is another person who has been working in Greek Life for more than six years (an anomaly), and so she must be the authority in what’s needed to benefit fraternities and sororities.

There’s trouble in innately trusting the experts, though. Experts are not necessarily good decision makers; they are observant. Observation and experience are great qualities, but they should not be confused with trust in decision-making.

Leadership is developed by decision-making, not studying, and so when we trust experts to make our decisions, rather than to simply present us with realities, we find ourselves in trouble.

  • Experts have run our banking industry for centuries. Experts didn’t prevent the collapse of the real estate and banking markets in 2008.
  • Experts have built and managed oil rigs for decades. Experts didn’t prevent the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Experts dreamed of flight for centuries. Experts lost out in the race to human flight to two bicycle makers.
  • Experts may know the effects of alcohol and drugs on the human body, but experts haven’t stopped young men and women from dying at college campuses across the country due to overdose.
  • Experts have a deep knowledge of where hazing stems from. Experts haven’t figured out where in the human psyche a opposition to hazing should be developed.
  • Experts suggested Hillary Clinton had a 98% chance of winning the 2016 election on November 7. Donald Trump won the 2016 election on November 8.
  • Experts built an American economy to worship over the years. Experts are seeing their industries die at the hands of the internet and some hipsters who created Uber, AirBNB and the Kahn Academy.
  • Experts assisted Britain in building a global empire. Experts didn’t anticipate George Washington’s puny, depleted forces waging guerilla warfare during the American Revolution.
  • Experts have spent plenty of time in higher education courses. Experts can’t seem to address why so many leave the field so quickly.



Knowledge isn’t power, but combined with ethical, strategic decision-making, it can be. One is not worth following simply because he or she is an expert.

Following someone requires that you can trust them, that you believe what they believe, and that you recognize their flaws. Our treatment of experts falls more along the lines of idolization than trust.

This brings us to the point of fraternity and sorority leadership. Why not trust the “experts?”

Why is it because I work at a campus or headquarters that my process, ideas or strategies are more valuable than alumni who volunteer their time? Why is a student, the member of a chapter/campus community, treated as a child when it comes to problem-solving for that chapter/campus community?

None of us in these professional positions of fraternity and sorority life get a pass simply because we are the experts. We must prove that our decisions are beneficial and ethical. We must earn trust before demanding others’ action and attention. Expertise isn’t enough.

Committees are typically ineffective decision-makers. A committee of experts doesn’t negate the fact that a committee serves little value in effective decision-making.

When you speak to those you advise, do so with humility. You may have knowledge and experience to share; that will always be valuable, but perhaps leaving others to make decisions with the knowledge you share is the best decision you can make. Making one good decision can create a domino effect, and you may very well  build yourself into an expert and leader. . . a Chief.

Warning: Knowledge is not a synonym for speculation. 

Approach experts with caution until you’ve seen them in action. They are human, they have blind spots, and the scientific process is only as perfect as the human utilizing it.

(Check out “The Black Swan” for an in-depth reading regarding the limitations of expertise in relation to unforeseen, ‘Black Swan,’ events.)