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Are generalists’ better business leaders than specialists?

In a simple definition, a generalist is “a person who knows something about a lot of subjects” and a specialist is defined as “a person who has special knowledge and skill relating to a particular job, area of study”.

Generalists are better leaders because they have the power of knowledge, the ability to see the bigger picture and think out of the box, and the fact that they are better at navigating uncertainty – better at predicting the outcomes of issues.

However, the most common criticism against generalists is that they might be sacrificing depth for breadth. 

Take this example of an iceberg.

A generalist could be able to see the iceberg and analyze its importance to the ship’s course.

But the same generalist, without a deeper knowledge of the iceberg, could be missing vital information on what’s happening below the surface.

Being a specialist also has its own drawbacks. While a generalist can often enjoy a wide range of career options, specialists tend to suffer from career inflexibility.

Their narrow focus and expert skills in a particular area mean they can only find work in this specific field.

Hence Specializing can hinder success in “dynamic environments,” where there is an urge for flexibility and more randomness.

In the rapidly changing world in which we live becoming a generalist allows you to embrace diverse experiences and perspectives that are becoming more necessary than ever.

So who wins?

top mba careers ebs blog

The answer is more in a mix of both. Strive to find a hybrid of the skill sets and be flexible and eager to be able to fit any hat as and when the situation calls for it.

To be able to do that and find yourself a proper position within a company, you not only need to find yourself being useful in more ways than one but also be respectably skilful in all.

BOTTOM LINE – When deciding between generalist and specialist domains.

Consider a mid-way between them becoming a “generalist-specialist” someone who starts out as a generalist, but also has in-depth knowledge over a particular area or a “specializing-generalist” someone who is specialized in a particular field, but also has a broader understanding of other aspects of the business.

Examples of famous world leaders are: 

Elon Musk – is an innovator and an entrepreneur, the current CEO of Tesla. Musk is originally a physics PhD holder, and he has led various business and political positions at international organizations worldwide. He was part of Trump’s advisory council and has co-founded and lead artificial intelligence and automaking companies without being a computer scientist or a mechanical engineer. 

Jeff Bezos – Founder and Executive Chairman of Amazon is another good example of a successful generalist leader. Originally a computer engineer; Bezos has managed to place himself among the world’s top business entrepreneurs.  

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