According to a recent Associated Press article ("FBI Chief Won't Mandate Terror Expertise," John Solomon, June 21, 2005) FBI agents who were promoted to top jobs in the bureau since Sept 11 admitted that they had no significant terrorism or Middle East experience, despite public assurances to the contrary. FBI leadership claims that this experience is still not necessary. Executive assistant director Gary Bald, who took over the job two years ago, commented, "I wish that I had [knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and history]. It would be nice. [But] you need leadership. You don't need subject matter experience."
At first this seemed loopy to me. Those of us in the West have enough problems understanding Middle Eastern cultures without promoting national leaders in a post-9/11 world who consider that to be optional. (And the FBI is such an easy target these days for righteous indignation.) But then I realized how many times I've counseled executives to do likewise: find and promote leaders—visionary, inspiring, risk-taking, action-obsessed—who produce results with and through others. After all, technical know-how, content knowledge, or subject matter expertise doesn't necessarily translate into the ability to work with human beings to make things happen!
Now we could—and maybe should—debate whether current FBI officials are actually PERFORMING as leaders, but first I'd like to know whom YOU would promote in YOUR company. What if you had to choose, say, between someone with classic leadership skills but little subject matter expertise in the job at hand or someone with unknown leadership potential but off-the-charts subject matter expertise? This also raises the question of how to keep SMEs (subject matter experts) engaged when you don't promote them. After all, the FBI is getting sued by one of them.