Should we examine credentials? Are they important? For some, this answer is easy; for others, not so much. For me… it depends.

I’m in a leadership group on Facebook. In this group, we recently had a discussion about whether or not the leaders of the future would be experts or generalists; a question first discussed in a Youtube video by doctor Franklin C. Annis (EdD).

During the discussion, I spoke about how in the world of leadership, there were some people who were really not qualified to be authorities in it. I likened it to a doctor defending their patient in a court of law. This is not to say that it was impossible, but simply not likely. This was in reference to the doctor of Education in contrast to a doctor of Leadership. Who should we be listening to? Perhaps both! Maybe neither! How can we know?

Being unfamiliar with the doctor in the video, it was my initial reaction to question his ability to speak on the topic. This was because of the designation behind his name. Not to say he was unqualified – I simply didn’t know. Was this an opinion piece, was he forced to teach leadership at some point and just went with it? Was this an idea that was posed to him so he was reaching out? I had lots of questions and few answers. I liked what he had to say but I’m not one to simply swallow what someone is feeding me either. I ask questions!

For me, such distinctions are important. Not because I rely solely on the credential, but it helps me evaluate the seriousness and study of the individual. Evaluate an MBA versus an MSL (Master of Business Administration vs. Master of Science in Leadership), who do you want designing your Leadership Development Program? Your initial reaction might be the MSL but could the MBA do it? Possibly. What do either of them really know about Leadership Development? Do they teach Leadership Development in the MBA program? I don’t personally know; my focus was leadership and I know they teach it there. Sounds like a good question to ask the MBA. My selection might very well be the MBA, but that selection would have to come with a bunch of qualifying questions beforehand. The MSL just has the head-start (at the moment).

Does an actor’s political view sway you? Does the threat of a celebrity moving to another country if you don’t vote their way really influence your behavior? When a singer composes a song that attempts to influence you politically, does it work? The answer probably varies from person to person. I’m sure that works on some of the weaker minded but the truth of the matter is that many of us don’t make our political decisions via celebrity influence. Why? This is what I’m talking about.

However, it’s not an all-or-nothing situation. Some celebrities are heavily involved in politics. They have researched, studied, become advocates and testified before congress and so on. Only through examination of the individual can this distinction be made. That’s my point and it actually works both ways. It’s sort of like deciding whether or not you’re going to listen to Bill Nye or Dolph Lundgren about chemical engineering. They are celebrities, why would you listen in the first place? Well, you may actually have a tough decision on your hands if you really examine it.

Similarly, a music teacher’s discipline doesn’t necessarily equate to the study “leadership” – hence their position on the subject should probably be evaluated a bit before it’s just swallowed. He/she may have a passion for leadership, he/she may know a lot about it and may even teach elements of it, but that’s not his/her “thing“. The “thing” in this situation is music; a doctoral degree that has a research focus in the field of music – not leadership. Like me though, that music teacher may have more than one “thing” and asking questions and getting familiar with that teacher might sway me entirely.

If you are a leadership pro, understand that I am not attacking you or your credentials if they fall outside of leadership specifically. Just like you, I evaluate credentials to help guide me to the following and necessary questions. When someone says they believe in something, I ask them why. When someone says they take a stand on something, I ask them why. Still, and sort of like how law enforcement and military often swear an oath to a document they couldn’t recite if they had to and likely didn’t read in the first place, I find it unsettling when people talk about things from an authoritative perspective that they haven’t really studied. We won’t know unless we examine. And for clarity, this doesn’t mean that all cops and military haven’t read it; some have. We have to ask questions to discover. Their proclamations help me discover truth by creating questions; it really is that simple.

So would you visit a Doctor of Musical Arts for your psychological, dental or even surgical needs? You might. But you would probably make darn sure that the practitioner you were visiting was qualified to do what you were asking of them first. I don’t see leadership as any different.

During the discussion, it was said that…

In modern society, credentials are increasingly becoming meaningless because institutions are reducing their standards and adapting more of a business model than those of the past. There is no incentive to fail students and remove them from programs if they can come back next year and pay you again. This is especially true as the emphasis is now being placed on graduation rates instead of the capability of the scholar. True education is something much more difficult to assess.

I couldn’t agree more as I am literally one of the biggest critics of modern education you will ever meet. It is my opinion that students are taught next to nothing these days and this is especially true with government-run education. I could list off a half a dozen things that almost everyone I’ve ever spoken to was unaware of but needs to know. The problems discussed have public education written all over them – 65% of public school 8th graders not proficient in reading, 67% not proficient in math; more than half of all students graduating high school unprepared for college and needing to take remedial courses. I’m well aware of the issue and agree that it’s a problem. That doesn’t mean that all teachers are terrible and all schools suck though. Good students are still out there and quality education still happens from time to time. Of course, I’m also aware that roughly 27 percent of college grads have a job that is closely related to their major. Clearly, what you pick to major in isn’t as important as your ability to learn. I recognize that and concur and understand that this too applies to the discipline of leadership.

Similarly, just like it doesn’t mean that all schools are doing it wrong, it doesn’t mean that your credentials define you. Education and experience are personal journeys so we must examine the individual; I just happen to do that with questions. Like I said, it’s not “all-or-nothing”.

Evaluation of what someone says and why they say it is critical (for me). When I do this, I’m merely paying homage to the idea of examination and not blindly following someone with “Doctor” behind their name. Doctors have different opinions, foremen have different opinions and even music teachers have different opinions. They were all taught different things by different people in different arenas. The same is true in the discipline of leadership and people would be wise to seek out more than one opinion or at least examine the fact that there is more than one.

I’m just more apt to listen to someone who has worked in construction their entire life or studied construction science about my construction needs over the music teacher who has read a few books on the topic or fixed a hole in the wall. On that same note, I would be more than happy to listen to the music teacher about construction if that teacher has worked on houses his whole life and knows a few things about it. That’s where questions come in. The same could be said for the construction science major with zero experience vs the construction professional with over 30 years of experience and no formal education. Both are going to have something interesting to say on the matter and both might very well do a great job. Still, there is a difference and it’s important to acknowledge this.

We could do this over and over with almost any field and I’m sure you would agree. Is the military going to rely on someone with very little radio experience to handle the radio? Is someone going to let a rookie pilot fly the president? You will note the common theme is experience and example – not education. Still, somehow the two go hand-in-hand as the guy with the education in the field was able to advance the curve, get the licensing and so on. Just as there is something to be said about experience, we should also recognize the many benefits of immersion/education.

I’m a researcher in health, security principles, theology, history, politics and leadership. I have written extensively on all of these. Still, there plenty of people that wouldn’t come to me for their health issues, religious issues or political advice. It’s because they don’t know me and are unfamiliar with my work. However, they might come to me for their leadership or security questions because I have documents providing proof that I have spent a great deal of time studying it and that I’m pretty good at it.

It’s usually only after referral or after one gets familiar with my work in the other areas that they become more comfortable with my abilities. This seems self-evident and it’s exactly what I’m talking about with the doctor or anyone else. When you read my work and think “Wow, this guy is dead-on!”, you will examine my other works. If you think “I don’t agree with this guy on that”, your opinion of my opinions begins to shift. It’s really quite simple.

I was lucky and went to a school that encouraged independent thought and exploration of my curiosities. Thankfully, I wasn’t a victim of indoctrination or apathy in regard to my education. Not everyone can say this. Of course, I too value education, experience, practice, research, etc. Understand that I am not attacking credentials or experience. I am merely making the point that if leadership is a discipline (which it is), then it might be wise to pay it the same respect we do with any other valued trades. It’s not to say that people can’t cross over or otherwise learn/practice it; it’s to say that learning it doesn’t happen in a book or two or in a weekend seminar. It comes from the same intense research and practice that happens in any other trade. Sometimes this will result in credentials, sometimes it doesn’t.

This is just like construction. Trust me! You wouldn’t want me on your construction job. I have experience though. I’ve been on many jobs, helped build a house or two, helped with a few additions and even roofed a few houses. Still, I’m not experienced enough to do a pro job or even make the right construction decisions. I’m helping hand at best. Part of this is due to a lack of confidence in the field. I would feel more confident if I studied it more… but you likely wouldn’t feel more confident about me working on your expensive investment unless I could provide some documentation, a license and an insurance card. See what I mean?

So let me answer the questions posed.

#1 – Should we examine credentials? Are they important?

Of course we should examine credentials and of course they are important, but it’s not everything. It’s not something that defines the person in front of you. However, examining credentials will help guide you to some important questions regarding experience and other areas of study. This is very important because you wouldn’t want to hire someone completely unqualified for the job. It’s an education versus experience paradigm. Discovering questions that help us establish and negotiate the importance of what is right for us individually comes through examination – a self-evident notion that is expedited through examination of credentials (a document or certificate proving a person’s identity or qualifications).

#2 – Will the military leaders of the future be experts or generalists (monomath or polymath)?

I believe polymath would be the correct answer in this instance because not only is the future uncertain, military units are becoming more diversified in their roles and expectations and the battlefields are becoming more complex and varied. A leader with a variety of contexts becomes the asset over the guy in a leadership position with a narrow set. Always note the difference between a real leader and someone in a leadership position. Of course, there is always the exception when a specialist will be needed but that’s not what we are talking about.

Generally speaking, we need to consider what you’re getting with both. A specialist provides a high rate of success in the one thing he/she can do and a high rate of failure in all others. This is terrible when future events are uncertain and the kicker here is that the future is always uncertain. The generalist not only provides a decent amount of success in all things but he/she is fairly flexible when an uncertain future is the reality.

 – This is precisely why you get such variety on this website; I would never preach what I do no personally practice.  

The discipline of leadership has recognized the importance of a polymath position and adjusted accordingly. This is also why I was questioning the purpose of the question. We often discuss how it is necessary to be flexible and well-informed in a variety of different areas. For example, aside from leadership theory, we are often taught a variety of different subjects ranging from research, psychology, organizational development and ethics to things like business management, group dynamics and cultural perspectives. Then, we are encouraged to chase other disciplines as though they were the first (at least during my studies and at my place of learning).

The discipline of leadership often encourages a polymath approach to the discipline because you need to be well-versed and diversified in various areas of study if you are hoping to help others in other fields and roles to become better leaders. Ask the questions; get the answers and don’t swallow what someone says because of their credentials. On that same note, don’t ignore what the credentials are telling you either. Question with boldness – EVERYTHING!