Bennett's Blog

Why generalists are better

Bennett R. Coles | September 28, 2010

Within the Astral Force, cross-training for officers is encouraged. If an officer hopes to one day rise to the rank of Fleet Marshall, he or she must have served at least one tour as a junior officer in both the Fleet and the Corps. It is considered essential for a senior leader to have a personal understanding of multiple aspects of the Force, not just their own specialization, and the broader an officer's career experience the better.

This is the philosophy of the generalist, and it creates the best leaders. The opposite is the specialist: a person who over time has gained intimate and in-depth knowledge of a particular area. Given enough time, the specialist might even be the expert on a subject, the person to whom all come for advice on that topic. Specialists are invaluable and their dedication to their craft can bring great benefits to their organization.

But when we're talking about leaders, a subject matter expert with a narrow focus is very often the worst person to put in charge. Why? Three reasons. First, they don't know anything about all the other areas of the organization over which they now have responsibility. Second, having spent a lot of time being the expert on their subject, they're probably not used to being questioned - or being wrong, for that matter. And third, a specialist won't have the breadth of experience if the environment changes, and their experience suddenly becomes irrelevant. Putting a specialist in overall charge is a recipe for inefficiency, mistrust and failure.

A generalist, in contrast, brings a wide perspective to leadership, and with it an ability to easily embrace strange new ideas and consider them on their merits, or lack thereof. A generalist is also used to not being an expert, and thus is very comfortable asking for input from other team members. A generalist has the ability to see the big picture, because he or she has personally experienced many aspects of it. A generalist has the ability to keep things in perspective, because he or she has probably seen something similar in the past.

As leaders, specialists flounder in the face of the unknown. Generalists thrive, empower and inspire.

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