A woman of color stands up at a table in front of her employees, reviewing charts with them.
Image credit: fizkes on istock.com

Good leaders demonstrate knowledge of and expertise in the work they oversee. This is one of the main conclusions of a recent study, published last year in the academic publication Journalism, of leadership in journalistic organizations around the United States.

The study, written by Gregory P. Perreault of the University of South Florida and Samuel M. Tham of Colorado State University, builds on other scholarship not specific to the field of journalism, pointing to the same conclusion: employees view good leadership as being deeply tied to their bosses’ ability to actually understand—and do—the work those employees carry out every day.

“The things that made for effective leaders were basically ones related to competence,” Perreault tells NPQ. “So, did they [the leaders] have strong journalistic expertise?”

“Employees are far happier when they are led by people with deep expertise in the core activity of the business.”

The conclusions might seem self-evident to some—but in fact, they run in the face, in some ways, of modern conventional wisdom about leadership and what makes a good leader.

“The standard, accepted knowledge is kind of the opposite,” says Perreault, noting that often prevalent thinking holds that “you almost need an entirely different skill set to be an effective leader.”

Instead, the results of this study backed up other research that suggests that many of the traits often associated with leadership—charisma, decisiveness, cunning, visionary thinking—play a lesser role than, well, good old-fashioned know-how, at least as far as employees are concerned.

The Qualities of a Good Leader

“The bottom line is that employees are happiest when the boss knows what she or he is talking about.”

A 2014 study in Industrial and Labor Relations Review of some 35,000 employees presented similar findings, with the authors writing, in 2016, in Harvard Business Review:

Employees are far happier when they are led by people with deep expertise in the core activity of the business. This suggests that received wisdom about what makes a good boss may need some rethinking. It’s not uncommon to hear people assert that it’s a bad idea to promote an engineer to lead other engineers, or an editor to lead other editors. A good manager doesn’t need technical expertise, this argument goes, but rather, a mix of qualities like charisma, organizational skills, and emotional intelligence.

On the contrary, these authors write:

When we look closely at the data, a striking pattern emerges. The benefit of having a highly competent boss is easily the largest positive influence on a typical worker’s level of job satisfaction … The bottom line is that employees are happiest when the boss knows what she or he is talking about, and that drives performance…

The study by Perreault and Tham of working journalists would seem to reinforce such conclusions.

“I think in journalism, and this perhaps is true of other fields as well, we seek someone that can teach us, if they’re going to be our employer. I mean, if we’re going to work for somebody, why not work for someone that can teach us something?” says Perreault.

Perreault points out that the journalists interviewed worked difficult jobs, which were high in stress and pressure, and generally lower-paying than other skilled professions.

When leaders could not communicate, our respondents definitely told us about that.”

But the journalists didn’t blame their bosses for these adversities or expect them to be able to fully alleviate them, understanding such challenges to be part of the profession. Instead, Perreault says that journalists who thought favorably of their leaders valued those leaders’ institutional knowledge and ability to help the journalists succeed despite the challenges.

“[Leaders] weren’t able to change the fact that the expectations that the news organization had, that their audience had, were high. What they were able to do is facilitate [employees] being able to do the very best work that they felt that they could do. And the way that they did that was by having strong journalistic competence and strong communication skills,” says Perreault.

That last quality, communication skills, was paramount, says Perreault, noting that many of the journalists interviewed emphasized good communication skills as the single most important quality of a good leader.

“When leaders could not communicate, our respondents definitely told us about that,” says Perreault.

Overall, the study builds on a body of research suggesting that, at least from the employees’ point of view, good leaders need not be visionaries or so-called “unicorns” with unique or rare abilities. Instead, employees identify good leadership among leaders with a deep understanding of the work their employees do and who support those employees in doing their work to the best of their ability.

The findings also have potential implications for hiring leaders and for advancement within organizations. They imply that good leaders are often those who have risen through the ranks and put in the time and work of those they supervise.

“An effective leader is one that I think leaves a really long legacy of what it is that you can accomplish in a field,” says Perreault, “And really helps inspire people for years after they’ve stopped being a direct supervisor, a direct supervisor to the employee.”