Leader vs. expert: Which career path is right for you?

Written by
Femme Palette
Published on
September 26, 2023

Throughout our career paths, we are constantly faced with situations where we need to make (small or large) decisions. A common question which so many ambitious individuals are faced with is “Should I become a leader or an expert?” In other words, should you remain an individual contributor and delve deeper into your field to build up a high level of expertise, or become a leader who will support and motivate others to thrive in their roles? 

For someone whose only experience so far has been as an individual contributor, it can be hard to imagine which path they’re better suited for and what would make them more fulfilled. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at making leadership vs. specialization career choices, the benefits and disadvantages of becoming either a leader or an expert in your field, what can help you make the right decision, and much more.

First things first: Know your strengths and values

Making any really good career decision is almost impossible without knowing what you want, what your values are, and what strengths you bring to the table. Without a good knowledge of yourself as a base, you’re leaving choosing between a leader or expert career path largely up to chance and external factors.

One of the key practices to help you achieve better self-knowledge is to engage in constant self-reflection. Take time periodically to sit down with yourself and look back on your day, week, month or year while asking yourself questions and evaluating the time period in question. To help you get going, here are a few great suggestions for questions you can ask yourself in your self-reflection sessions from the recruitment company Page Personnel:

  • What were your best 3 work experiences in the last year - projects, teams, roles, activities? Be as specific as you can.
  • On the contrary, what were your 3 worst work experiences?
  • What were the essential elements that made these experiences fulfilling/unfulfilling?
  • What is something work-related that you can talk about non-stop? Something that energizes you?
  • If you imagine that you couldn’t fail, what would you like to achieve in the next year?
  • If there were no limitations, what skills, responsibilities, and experiences would you like to have in your future career?

As you continue to practice self-reflection on a regular basis, you will gain a better understanding of what fulfills you, energizes you, and what you would want from your career in the future to make it fulfilling.

You don’t have to do this alone: How a coach can help you discover your values and goals 

If you feel stuck, overwhelmed, and not able to identify specific values and expectations from which to draw your career goals, a very effective way to get help with this is working with a career coach. How does coaching work? By asking you the right questions, a good coach will be able to guide you to finding the right answers within yourself. Many individuals who have worked with career coaches report gaining clarity on their career path, understanding which next steps they need to take, and being able to set clear career goals much easier than before. Finding a coach or getting connected with one via a coaching platform is a great first step to deciding between a leadership or specialist career path.

Now you have clarity, weigh your options: comparing a leadership vs. expert path

Do you have greater clarity now on what you want from your career? Is developing hard or soft skills more important to you? Do you care more about job security, or would you rather be able to easily transfer between employers? There are many factors to weigh in when choosing a leadership or expert path. To give you a brief idea of what you might want to consider when comparing your options, here is a rundown of a few benefits and possible downsides of the two paths.

Pursuing a leadership path

Many tend to associate leadership roles with bold, extroverted personalities, and so it can be easy for introverted, quieter individuals to dismiss this path as not a good fit for them. However, the experiences and observations actually tend to show that a variety of personality types can thrive in leadership roles. In fact, many well-known successful leaders describe themselves as introverts. With the right mindset, skills, and willingness to learn, you can lead, motivate and inspire others even if you may not think so now. What you should consider though is what makes leadership roles different from individual contributor roles and think about how you would feel in such a position.

Benefits of choosing a leadership path
  • Influence and ability to form workplace culture: Leaders have major influence on their teams, there’s no doubt about that. Moving into a leadership role is a chance to put forward your values, incorporate them into your workplace culture, and inspire others.
  • Visibility and prestige: A leadership role can come with a great deal of visibility - some of the best known leaders are practically celebrities. As a leader, you could be interviewed by media outlets, asked to speak on panels or give talks, or meet with important individuals. It’s also a great opportunity to give visibility to causes which are important to you.
  • Highly transferable skills: Many times, leaders will transfer between companies in different fields or industries. This is because the ability to lead is valued universally. This could give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in different cultures, industries and company sizes.
  • Soft skills focus: While this isn’t always universally the case, leadership roles do tend to be more focused on soft skills. If this is where your strengths lie and where you would like to grow, a leadership path will enable you to put your soft skills to practical use.

Possible downsides of a leadership path
  • Higher level of responsibility: Let’s face it - with great power comes great responsibility. If you’re generally reluctant to take responsibility or if it scares you, keep in mind that as a leader, you won’t be able to avoid it.
  • Surface-level knowledge of different areas: As a leader, you likely will have to “give up” some opportunities for gaining deeper expertise to make way for focusing on big picture issues. This also goes hand in hand with trusting the individual contributors on your team and their own expertise. If this makes you feel like you’d be losing control and might resort to micromanagement, leadership may not be the ideal path for you.
  • Making (unpopular) decisions: Decision making can be one of the most challenging aspects of being a leader, especially if you find it extremely difficult to share bad news or make decisions that may not be popular with others.

Pursuing an expert path

Like leaders, people in specialist roles are also subject to a number of stereotypes which can put others off potentially choosing this path. Being a specialist doesn’t necessarily mean sitting alone in a dark room with no contact with the outside world. Specialists will often come together to collaborate on projects or may be asked to advise leaders on areas where people in management roles have only surface level knowledge. It’s also untrue that specialists cannot be high earners. Here are a few things you should consider when thinking about pursuing an expert career path.

Benefits of choosing an expert path
  • High value on the job market: If you want to become indispensable at work and ensure a high level of job security, you should definitely consider pursuing an expert path. By having deep knowledge of a particular area, you’re gaining a competitive advantage compared with other job seekers who have only scratched the surface, and you’re sure to be in demand by employers.
  • Deep level of knowledge: While managers have to balance a diverse skill set where they are likely to find aspects they don’t enjoy, being a specialist means that you can make a deep dive into the area that fulfills and energizes you most and give it your all.
  • Strong personal brand: When it comes to personal branding, the more you are able to define yourself specifically and differentiate yourself from others, the better. As a specialist, a major part of your personal brand is your niche knowledge.
  • Hard-skills focus: As stated before in the leadership path benefits, this isn’t always 100% the case, and of course experts also need soft skills to thrive. However, if there is a certain hard skills that you feel really strong in and want to use as much as possible, chances are that an expert role will fulfill this need better than a leadership role.

Possible downsides of an expert path
  • Less visibility: As an expert, you may have to deal with often being in the background, and even with the results of your work being presented to stakeholders or the public by your leader colleagues despite them having little input. 
  • All eggs in one basket: Being an expert in a niche area comes with a certain level of risk - if your area becomes obsolete, so does your expertise. To mitigate this risk, you will also have to focus on making your skills transferable to be able to make career pivots if needed.
  • Potential isolation: While leaders will spend a large portion of their days in meetings (and probably wish for a few moments of solitude), you may experience a level of loneliness in an expert path. If you’re someone who absolutely needs to be around people 24/7 and finds it difficult to work alone, you might want to reconsider pursuing an expert path.

10-step checklist: Choose the right career path for you

  • Reflect on yourself

Have you identified your core values, strengths, and passions to gain clarity about what you want in your career?

  • Set SMART goals

Have you set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound goals for your career?

  • Check your skill enhancement

Are you consistently working on developing and improving the skills necessary for success in your career?

  • Network

Have you actively expanded your professional network by connecting with peers and industry experts?

  • Seek learning opportunities

Are you regularly seeking out new learning opportunities, courses, or workshops to stay up-to-date?

  • Seek feedback

Do you actively seek feedback from colleagues, mentors, or supervisors to identify areas for improvement and where you would be better suited for?

  • Explore leadership roles

Have you explored leadership roles within your organization or industry to understand the responsibilities and requirements?

  • Research opportunities to specialize

Have you thoroughly researched and evaluated the potential benefits and drawbacks of becoming a specialist in your field, as well as what opportunities to specialize are available to you?

  • Get a mentor

Are you seeking guidance from experienced professionals or mentors who can provide insights into your career path?

  • Commit to your personal growth

Are you committed to continuous personal growth and adaptation in your career journey, recognizing that it's an ongoing process?

Whether you decide for a leadership or specialist career path, keep in mind that the world of work is always evolving and you are too. It’s possible that your values and needs in ten years time will have changed and you might want to shift your focus. Whether you want to explore our opportunities or need help reaching specific goals, always keep in mind that there are ways to seek support from other professionals, mentors, or coaches depending on your current situation and needs.

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