Eclectic Curiosity

Leaders as Generalists

Posted on December 17th, 2003, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Perspectives. No Comments

Leaders as Generalists

We need generalist leaders. This is especially true in the context of company management.

Leaders are, ideally, generalists that can understand and handle many different parts of a company. Innovation is dependent on an organization’s ability to regularly access and sift through large volumes of available information, determine which is most important and pertinent and then to apply it to unique situations in new ways. This role – essentially one of direction and delegation – is the province of leaders.

The irony of this of course is that companies naturally specialize and the people working at modern day companies are trained to be specialists, managers. This is where one can really see Lawrence Peter’s Peter Principle in full swing. The great, highly talented specialists get promoted and eventually become mediocre company leaders unable to competently comprehend other essential parts of the organization – including other personality types and working conditions – and the environment in which it operates. People who have been socialized into mechanistic, bureaucratic [specialized] systems are less likely to be comfortable in organic ones. They are used to being told what to do and when to do it and having boundaries marked, expectations set and little change in tasks. Generalist activities like combining numerous sources of knowledge to find (and recognize) general thought are not natural for managers whose expertise is narrowly defined. It is a difficult adjustment for some and a company-stagnating impossibility for others. And those capable of recognizing what it is that they do best will admit as much.

Some of the best managers make the lousiest leaders, and vice versa.

Even in fairly progressive environments where generalists are at the helm, leaders fail to recognize their success too brings with it a potentially harmful characteristic – experience. Over one’s career one gradually moves from the naiveté end of the continuum (where one thinks he/she knows everything), past an optimal balance point and into the experience end (where one thinks he/she knows everything). Both naiveté and experience are valuable in business but too much of either can be harmful. For the seasoned executive, overconfidence in proven techniques fosters a mindset averse to new ideas. “If managers ‘believe’ their world views are facts rather than sets of assumptions,” says Peter Senge, “they will not be open to challenging these world views. If they lack skills in inquiring into theirs and others’ ways of thinking, they will be limited in experimenting collaboratively with new ways of thinking.”

The point is, generalists are needed to identify specialists and to direct their activities in such a way that benefits the whole project. They are needed as seers of the big picture. This does not mean that generalists are more important or that specialists are unable to self-organize but rather these two groups of workers need each other in order to achieve the best results. It is a team game. To use a sports analogy, the players need the coach as much as the coach needs the players (and they both need the scouts that initially introduce them to each other).

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