DeM Banter: So…how we doing with this? Model T leaders seem to dominate… I know in our organization we place huge value on the generalist…is that good? Bad? Do we need to adjust/change?
It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
Leonardo da Vinci
Ask yourself this question: “Should I hire and nurture generalists or specialists to foster innovation in my organization?” The 21st century answer better be “Yes. I hired one just yesterday!”
There is much debate about whether the generalist or the specialist is a better leader for innovative communities and organizations. Most of this debate is simply a waste of time. The problem is that we tend to frame the issue as an arbitrary, either/or question, an issue of specialists or generalists. Doing this obviously leads to arbitrary, either/or answers because the question itself makes arbitrary and often useless distinctions. A better way to answer this question in a world of innovation, change, and constant paradigm-shifting, is to say: “Yes, of course organizations need specialists and generalists – but in the same person.”
The Old Model T of Leadership
For a very long time, there has been a model of the innovation leader being a “T,” that is, someone with a fairly broad perspective and awareness, paired with an area of deep expertise. This model emerged from the ever-increasing complexity of our world and the resulting need for specialists to make sense of specialized knowledge. The world’s business needed and wanted the specialist. At the same time, when organizations needed leadership they looked for evidence of deep knowledge paired with a broad point of view and perspective — leaders who could provide nimble thinking and breadth of vision, along with their particular area of specialty. And this “Model T” of leadership (pun intended!) was all well and good . . . so far as it went.
But innovation in the 21st century demands a new generation of powerful leaders, those who can transcend this old model and be both generalist and specialist across multiple, varied disciplines, at the same time. What is needed is not “Model T” leadership, but a new generation of what we might call “Repeating W Model” leaders, like this: WWW. Let’s call these RW leaders. They are polymaths. They have and continuously nurture a broad, expansive worldview, while at the same time pursuing deep expertise in multiple disciplines. They constantly dive back and forth from the general to the specific, acquiring both increased breadth and depth. They are, simultaneously, both specialist and generalist. And they render the distinction between generalist and specialist meaningless
These new RW leaders are necessary to the innovation system because of the rise of data. We live and work in a world that is drowning in information, but lacking in meaning and context. Our collective ability to harvest and store information has dramatically outstripped our ability to make sense of it all. As a consequence, we often wander around in disconnected pools of information, inside of profoundly siloed organizations, not able to see the connections between this and that.
This is where RW leaders play a critical and outsized role. Many – perhaps the majority – of our modern organizations are fragmented, incoherent, and lacking a vision of the future. RW leaders serve as the organizational antidote to all three of these ills, by performing three critical functions:
1: Connecting the Dots. In organizations that operate in siloes, and highly specialized areas of expertise, RW leaders connect the dots between functionally isolated areas of operation and inquiry. This involves much more than simply seeing the connections between seemingly unconnected areas; it also involves showing these connections to others, and bringing them to light in ways that are exciting, fun and energizing. RW leaders bring connections to life and show us how to weave these connections into the broader fabric of an organization. They do this by . . .
2: Telling The Story. Communities and organizations are nothing if not constantly evolving narratives. The disconnected company is one whose story is incoherent. RW leaders counter incoherence by finding the connectedness between disparities and telling the story of those connections. They draw together divergent threads of conversations and ideas and possibilities, and then weave those into a coherent whole, leading multiple conversations from multiple points of view. What then emerges is a powerful narrative of cohesion and relatedness, which leads to . . .
3: Creating The Future. Neither RW leaders, nor the innovative organization, is static. They both exist for a purpose and that purpose is to create. RW leaders help organizations and individuals to see future possibilities, to redefine their roles and purposes, and to create new rules and new ways of doing. Because they see across divisions and into connections, they are able to align resources and focus time and energy on productive, meaningful work. In essence, by finding and celebrating connections, and then curating the conversation about those connections, RW leaders create a “future narrative,” which in turn nurtures and feeds constant innovation.
Henry Doss is a venture capitalist, student, musician and volunteer in higher education. His firm, T2VC, builds startups and the ecosystems that grow them. His university, UNC Charlotte, is a leading research institution.