How To Be a Leader in Your Field



“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” — John C. Maxwell

How can you become a leader in your field?  A colleague shared a link to How to Be a Leader, which I found interesting.  

I think the key takeaway is that to be a leader in your field, you help move the ball forward.

You Need More Than the Skills You Got In School

I think that’s a great reminder that your grow in your career by spending time in it.  You don’t just learn it all up front.
Philip writes:

“To succeed in your career, you need more than the skills that you got in school — you need to be the world expert in something.

Knowledge is global, it’s growing exponentially, and nobody can pack all of the necessary knowledge into their head.

So everyone’s going to specialize.  I think there’s a lot to be said for focus and specialization.  The trick is picking what to specialize in. 

Personally, I like to specialize in skills that compound over time versus flavor of the day.”

Steps to be a Leader in Your Field

In the article,  Philip E. Agre presents a six step recipe for becoming a leader in your field.

Let’s walk through them…

Step 1. Pick an issue

For this step, I would recommend picking something that is underserved. 

It should be a meaningful problem that solving would have a significant impact and move the ball forward. 

In the article, Philip gives an A-Z list of how to pick which ball to move forward.
In this step, pick an area in your field that is underserved.

Step 2. Having chosen your issue, start a project to study it.

A project is a great way to focus.  A simple recipe for a project is to have a vision of the end in mind, and chunk up the outcomes you want to accomplish, and the steps and actions to get there. 

Having a project will help keep you on track.

Step 3. Find relevant people and talk to them.

Involve the right people.  You need a sounding board for your ideas and to help you find the right issues and focus. 

Every domain has a pocket of experts that are in the know. 

For your work to be credible, you need to be inclusive of existing work, and including the voices of the experts in your field, adds to your credibility. 

Being connected in your field takes you further.

Step 4. Pull together what you’ve heard.

Consolidate and synthesize your learnings into a useful artifact.

Step 5. Circulate the result.

Share your work with people in the field.

Step 6. Build on your work.

Use the feedback to improve your work, and to take it further. 

Building on your work will help turn good ideas into a strong foundation and platform for additional work.

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  1. Agreed on specializing on compound, timeless issues. I think in order to be a better leader, two other things to consider are: 1) enjoy what you’re studying and not study something simply because it’s in demand (although that helps) and 2) the ability to build trust by being consistent and honest.

  2. JD,
    I think this photo is great!
    When you shared this topic, I was thinking:
    ~Each of us already do specialize in something. However, I think we too often discredit our experiences as levels of expertise, because we are too close to see them as the best building tools.
    I often struggled with the words ‘expert, expertise, catalyst’ for myself, meanwhile; I enjoy following someone who has walked it through, who leads naturally. I think we just never consider ourselves one of them. But, we are, we are all the same.
    There is something about the beauty of resilience that cannot be matched, especially when it holds a story! We are each born of these stories! The question is will we share them? The leaders are those who understand the power of transparency and sacrifice their vulnerability for a time. In time, this becomes their strength, their voice which becomes many voices behind them. They simply stepped out, though – with their whole life! This sacrifice always rewards and leaves a legacy!
    I just read something today that reminded me again the importance of prioritizing and ‘single-tasking’. Just as we each specialize in something, it doesn’t mean that we stay in that area as long as we probably should. I am learning to get back in order, for necessary training or I’ll lose all my energy in the extras, not spent wisely on the field I’m meant to focus on. Great topic! have a lovely day! ~Jen

  3. Building a strong foundation goes a long way in grasping new technologies. This way, you can specialize in skills that increase over time, at the same time, take benefit of the current flavor as well.

  4. “Personally, I like to specialize in skills that compound over time versus flavor of the day.”

    I totally agree. There are so many trends these days — the long term subjects, issues, and ideas get lost in the fray. I was just reviewing publications that accept essay and article submissions and they consistently want material that addresses the issue du jour. Some even explicitly state that they don’t want submissions that deal with anything other than what’s hot in the media right now. And the media is so skewed, I find that a bit disheartening.

  5. Interesting thought you have shared above. However, I believe that the core virtue of a leader is not to be an expert or specialist. Being a leader means affecting your character to the people your lead.

    People don’t just follow you because you specialize on something, rather they commit to you because they trust in you, they believe in you and they respect you despite your shortcoming.

    Leadership is a character, not an academic. 🙂

  6. During grad school, a mentor offered similar advice. It works. In my current role an issue fell into my lap which I seized upon. My white paper on the topic was recently published. Patiently seeking “my next big thing”, it just recently fell into my lap. This time next year I’m confident I’ll have been able to finagle a reputation for expertise on the topic. Indeed, being goal-oriented, I’ll build a plan to do so based on the steps you cite. Thanks, J.D.

  7. JD
    There is so much living to do and so much to learn – if you can find the niche and learn the experience and then a team for sharing within – wow more power to you and others…

    I am working at ignoring all the media name calling right now and becoming an expert in MY Healthcare and Health which I hope to share to inspire others to either not need a funky system or be able to change it for the best that can be for humans

    thank you – I am grateful for your work and sharing this information

  8. @ Valerie

    You said it. Passion is crucial to getting to the top of your game.

    @ Jen

    You’re so right. I see people discount their experience all the time. It’s a shame given how experience is one of the most valuable things you bring to the table in any scenario. Just because you haven’t been there or done that, doesn’t mean it’s not like this or like that.

    I love your point on stories. People get to write their story an experience at a time, and this is how people can find their unique voice and put their strengths to the test.

    @ Avani

    It sounds like you found the perfect way to embrace change. You use your firm foundation to find a way forward and that’s great.

    @ Melissa

    I know what you mean. While I like to know the latest and greatest, I’m really a fan of the timeless principles, patterns, and practices.

    @ Walter

    I like your angle. I would extend that to say that an effective leader is a catalyst.

    @ Jimmy

    There is something powerful about sharing what you know in writing. It’s tough to write expertise down into prose, but I think of it as scaffolding for others in the community.

    @ Patricia

    I think you’re leading an important path. If there’s one pattern I’m seeing, it’s that more people are becoming their own best doctors and they play a more active role in shaping their own health. DIY (Do-It-Yourself) health seems like a growing practice.

  9. Catching up. 🙂

    Interesting article. Makes me think about Seth’s book “the dip” as bit. Pick something where you are willing to get through the dip and put your energy into it.


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