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From Expert to Explorer

Category:Exploration,Growth,Institutional Innovation,Leadership,Learning,Opportunity,Passion,Trust,Uncategorized

We are in a Big Shift from experts to explorers. What do I mean by this? We live in societies around the world where “experts” run the show. Given the profound changes that are unfolding in our global economies and societies, we need to shift to explorers who can help us craft new pathways that can create far more value for all of us. Let me explore this in more detail.

Our heritage

Over the past century, we have witnessed the growth of large institutions around the world that have been driven by a “scalable efficiency” model. In this model, the key to success is to do what we have always done, faster and cheaper, at scale.

This model worked very well in a more stable world. The large institutions that run our economies and societies have embraced this model and were able to scale at a rapid rate globally.

In the scalable efficiency model, leadership is awarded to “experts.” These are people who have relevant academic degrees and experience in running similar institutions. Evaluating experts requires a deep dive into their past to ensure they have acquired the knowledge required to manage tightly specified processes and demonstrated the ability to squeeze harder so that all relevant activities can be done faster and cheaper.

Experts have ambition. They are driven to accumulate more credentials and experience that will help them to achieve even greater influence and power than they currently have. But they’re not excited about the unknown – if anything, they are in denial or resisting the unknown.

In a Big Shift world with mounting performance pressure, we trusted leaders who had the relevant expertise – it was all about credentials. These were leaders who claimed to have the answers to all the relevant questions and these claims were credible because they had the relevant credentials.

These leaders embraced the “command and control” approach that governs all scalable efficiency institutions. People needed to obey their commands because the leaders were the experts with all the answers. If they deviated from the scripts and process manuals that were provided to them, they were likely to be fired. Experts pursued a push-based model of resource allocation, pushing the right people and resources into the right places to meet their forecasts of demand.

Our future

We are in the early stages of a profound transformation of our global economy and society. To navigate successfully through these changes, we will need to embrace a very different leadership model. We will need to seek out and nurture explorers, rather than experts.

What do I mean by explorers? I am talking about people who have found and are pursuing a very specific form of passion – I call it the “passion of the explorer.”  These people are excited about opportunities to have more and more impact in domains that matter to them. They are constantly seeking new challenges that can help them to learn faster by creating new knowledge that never existed before. They also are actively seeking help from others in addressing these new challenges – they freely acknowledge that they don’t know the answers and that they need help in finding the answers.

As you can see, explorers are very different from experts. They are looking ahead to anticipate emerging opportunities and recognize that existing knowledge is becoming obsolete at an accelerating rate. As leaders, they are framing powerful and inspiring questions that can pull more and more people to them in an effort to explore and discover answers that can create far more impact that is meaningful.

I don’t want to suggest that experts cannot become explorers. Experts – those with significant credentials and experience – can also be driven by the passion of the explorer. But then they become explorers – they are excited about the questions that don’t yet have answers and the opportunities ahead that have not yet been addressed.

Rather than motivating people with fear, explorers seek to draw out the passion of the explorer in others, so that more and more people are excited about venturing out into new territories and addressing emerging opportunities. Explorers create work environments that support exploration and accelerate learning by drawing people together and focusing them on emerging opportunities. Rather than organizing into hierarchical command and control structures, explorers focus on becoming a catalyst for bringing people together into small impact groups that are focused on action and impact and then expanding impact by organizing larger and larger networks of impact groups.

Explorers generate a very different form of trust compared with experts. Rather than focusing on credentials and past experience, explorers demonstrate a commitment to addressing unmet needs that are meaningful to people. They are constantly seeking out new unmet needs and make it clear they are determined overcome whatever obstacles and barriers that stand in their way as they address those needs. People trust explorers because they see that determination and excitement that will let nothing stand in their way.

While experts tend to be inward looking, focused on how to do existing activities faster and cheaper, explorers are outward looking. They are constantly searching for new unmet needs of stakeholders that can help them to create far more value.

I’ve become a strong proponent of the explorer leadership model in part because of more than 40 years of experience in Silicon Valley. I’ve seen the extraordinary value that explorers can create in startups. Unfortunately, once these startups achieve some scale, investors begin to pressure the explorers to hire “adult supervision.” That means they want the explorers to hire experts who can implement more traditional ways of doing business at scale. As a result, many of these companies becoming captives of the experts.

Why is the explorer leadership model so important? Organizations that continue to pursue the expert model will experience diminishing returns at best – the more efficient one becomes, the long and harder they will need to work to get the next increment of efficiency. In contrast, organizations embracing the explorer model are able to unleash exponentially expanding value. The paradox of the Big Shift is that, at the same time that it creates mounting performance pressure for all of us, it is also creating exponentially expanding opportunities – we can create far more value, far more quickly, and with far less resources than ever before. Explorers are driven to find and address those opportunities.

Bottom line

We’re on the cusp of a profound shift in leadership models. The expert model that served us so well over the past century is now proving less and less useful. We need to embrace a very different model – the explorer model. This model will help us to unleash the exponential value creation opportunities generated by the Big Shift and help all of us to achieve more and more of our potential. This isn’t just an opportunity – it’s an imperative, given our rapidly changing world. The best is yet to come.


Kate Hopkinson

December 2, 2023at 3:35 pm

This is very interesting, as it squares with Landscape of the Mind’s ( LoM) findings exactly : the more uncertainty, unpredictability, volatility, ambiguity and rapid and complex change there is in your operating environment, the more crucial divergent inner skills become – ie those which facilitate exploration of the unknown.
We have been identifying individuals to whom these relatively unusual gifts come naturally, using the LoM questionnaire, for some time ,mainly in big corporates.
However, High Divergers are often better at nagivating in uncertainly than they are at implementing practical solutions, so team members with other kinds of dominant inner skills and preferences are also essential.
Are you aware that a new book provides extraordinary validation for these insights, since it offers an extensive and exhaustive array of neuro physiological evidence to support the distinctions LoM makes ?
There is now no question of the vast and urgent need for these relatively neglected inner skills. We know how to find them, and how to develop them – the question is, how to get the information out there ?

Nollind Whachell

September 29, 2023at 5:32 pm

> As I reflected on what had motivated me to participate in these initiatives, I realized I had been seeking to achieve more of my potential by venturing into uncharted territories. This led me to craft a new personal narrative that went something like this: “Let’s overcome our fear and venture out onto promising edges that have the potential to change people’s lives for the better.” The call to action was shifting from those who needed help (“Tell me your problems, so I can help you”) to those who were motivated to help (“Let’s change people’s lives for the better”). My personal narrative’s call to action now focuses much more on the people who can come together with me to craft platforms that can help others achieve more of their
potential. There’s still a secondary call to action for others to use the platforms as they are deployed, but the narrative’s primary focus is on those who can help me to co-create those platforms.

Just a quick follow-up relating to this above quote of yours from your book, as this is effectively what I want my “guild” for the 21st century to be. The problem in trying to achieve this though is that I’ve found very few people who have any interest in uncovering their fears collaboratively with others, let alone admit that fear is this invisible thing standing in the way of our creative growth, development, and potential. In effect, people fear fear itself and don’t want to admit or talk about how it’s affecting them.

If you come up with a way to do this, please share this on your site here, as I’d love to know because right now I see fear affecting everyone at an increasing rate, yet no one wants to talk about it. Instead everyone is just escaping from reality to try to cope. Gamers escape to virtual game worlds and non-gamers escape by creating their own narratives of reality that they bubble themselves within and bounce against others. Neither helps.

Until people have the courage to explore their inner terrain, bringing to light what they fear, we won’t to be able step past that fear and discover what we passionately hope to create.

Nollind Whachell

September 8, 2023at 4:06 pm

John, when I read this post of yours, I was completely blown away because I saw so many touch points that relate to my own life’s work that I’ve been struggling with over the past two decades in seeking a new way of working and a new way of being.

During this time, in researching The Future of Work, social innovation, creativity, and vertical development (aka ego/leadership development), I noticed strange synchronicities between what I was learning and my past experiences in building and leading communities online around video games like the MMORPG of World of Warcraft.

Eventually what I realized is that the narrative encompassing the mechanics of MMORPGs themselves metaphorically embody the narrative of getting to and working within The Future of Work itself. In effect, to change and evolve our mindsets (level up), we have to question (quest) the assumptions and beliefs of our world and overcome our fears (monsters) lying deep within ourselves (dungeons). This in turn perfectly embodies the psychological metaphors in the Hero’s Journey itself and how its primary purpose isn’t to write fictional stories but to helps us live our lives authentically to their fullest potential.

So today I’ve realized I’m effectively trying to create a new form of knowledge to make growth and development more accessible and understandable to people by making something new and foreign (vertical development) seem old and familiar (Hero’s Journey / MMORPGs).

However, I’m realizing at the same time though that this isn’t enough. More than describing this, I need to embody it, so that I can create an environment that people can immerse themselves within to understand the larger context of it. So I need to not only embody this for myself, showing how I’m metaphorically “adventuring” in a new way in the 21st century, but I also need to embody it in creating a “guild” for the 21st century that helps others with the courage to “heroically” “level up” their mindsets as well.

Currently to make this a new reality though, I believe we need to move beyond bosses, jobs, and resumes, as these are the cornerstones and social artifacts of our old reality. Moving beyond bosses has been covered quite a lot already in a lot of books. And moving beyond jobs has been touched upon a bit as well. But moving beyond resumes hasn’t been explored much by anyone.

What I’m effectively getting at here is I envision a world of explorers as well, as they creatively explore, navigate, and storylive a new reality. But until we can effectively show what these explorers are in a tangible way, like going beyond resumes and creating some sort of “character sheet” that encompasses them in a much more broader, deeper, and complex way (i.e. culture / values they embody), we will continually be tethered to the old world and its old social artifacts.

If any of what I’ve said here resonates with you and you’d like to talk further about this, definitely give me a shout, as I’ve found both your work and John Seely Brown’s to relate quite a bit to my own, especially as you’ve both had experience with MMORPGs in your past research.


August 30, 2023at 1:14 am

This sounds like the current iteration of scientific revolution, during which older thinking that might have valued crystallized knowledge and brand name scientists, needs to make way for the next cohort of thinkers who value curiosity and examining phenomena from multiple angles and perspectives.
Maybe science might have to share some space with all of the other forms of inquiry and knowledge making 😁

Steve Mallett

August 29, 2023at 11:46 am

Relevant data now spoils quickly.

‘Big data’, as we knew it, is a lot of old data.

Alan Arnett

August 10, 2023at 2:08 pm

This is why I started my leadership practice and called it The Exploration Habit, 9 years ago… 😉

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(if you've read the book, click here)

My new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, starts with the observation that fear is becoming the dominant emotion for people around the world. While understandable, fear is also very limiting.


The book explores a variety of approaches we can pursue to cultivate emotions of hope and excitement that will help us to move forward despite fear and achieve more of our potential. You can order the book at Amazon.

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