Friday, 02 December 2022 04:54

'Don't be a donkey': The best leadership advice from the last 120 years

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"I'm NOT a donkey, and I don't have a field," goes the witty comeback from German political economist, Max Weber, after a faculty criticized him for publishing outside his discipline. More than a century later Weber's decry of the "narrowing of scholarship" is more pertinent than ever – and not just in academia but business as well.

To be a entrepreneurial donkey is especially risky. Starting and owning a business requires a breadth of knowledge to be able to:

i) understand where the market opportunities exist

ii) create new and innovative products and most important

iii) lead a growing team across a variety of business functions.

Where are all the free-ranging leaders? Today's managers specialize in specialties. It's the conventional wisdom that's rarely questioned. They start them early, fresh out of college where they're taught to "pick a major" and do that one thing really well. 

An incoming junior associate is then encouraged to stick to that one area of expertise, all the while continuing to get promotions until, one day, they find themselves in a senior leadership role with little experience outside their niche domain. They're ill equipped, discouraged and oftentimes, ready to quit.

They're donkeys in a field. Smart ones, hard working ones, sure. But still donkeys.

Why generalists need to thrive, but can't

Our modern organizations are mostly to blame. They're the donkey breeders. Siloed institutions based on region or business function create verticals where people aren't rewarded – or worse, are actively discouraged – for collaborating or sharing knowledge. 

And even if there is an individual, let's say, who has a particular bent for interdisciplinary style work, she will find herself fighting an uphill bureaucratic battle. So she gives up.

Remote work puts this at even greater risk. The pandemic style of at-home work has pushed us further down into our functional areas. A recent study from Harvard Business School researchers found an unintended side-effect of remote operations: In 2019 and 2020, many companies around the world "became more siloed during the emergency work-at-home measures, with employees digitally splitting off into more isolated communication networks."

Find a way to triumph as a generalist

The more you rise in the ranks, the more important it is to be a generalist. Despite the pull to specialize, specialize, specialize, leaders need to have a breadth and a comfort in dabbling in different ideas. Doing so makes you a better leader.

In a "specialized world", says journalist David Epstein, a generalist does well to keep a broad range of interests, changing course along the way. And it's not just about interests at work. In one line of research, it's been shown that the most effective form of leadership development helps a leader make sense of themselves and who they are by drawing on other identities and experiences, outside their work.

It's also true for young leaders. There's a case for being a generalist or what Epstein calls a "delayed specialist", at the start of one's career. 

In his book 'Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World', Epstein talks about research showing early specialists get the jump in success and income, but they soon get passed by their generalist counterparts. The field specialists also tend to quit more later in their career because they pick a worse fit earlier on, when they know less about themselves and their profession.

It's easy to become a donkey when you're surrounded by a bunch of other donkeys. The discomfort you feel to go against the grain (pun intended) will be well worth it later in your career.