A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

By | January 19, 2020

[January 19, 2020]   As leaders rise through their organizations, there is a standard piece of advice that is supposed to help them.  Organizations are inherently complex and chaotic.  Thus, we are told that leaders must focus their efforts a mile wide and an inch deep.

The reasoning is persuasive.  If a leader needs a greater understanding, the argument is to bring someone on board who does know, leverage their expertise, and follow their recommendations.  “Expert advice” is useful and actively employed as a stopgap.  Hiring experts, however, is not always possible.

“You have to know a little about a lot of things and not a lot about a few things.” – anonymous U.S. Army Major General

Several Flag Officers had given me this guidance when I was a Colonel.  The above quote is just one example.  While it is true that senior leaders cannot know everything about everything in their organization, I believe it to be an error to think we cannot achieve a balanced approach in their leadership.

There were a few of us new Army Generals who rebelled against the long-standing advice to spread yourself thin across a diverse set of subjects.  We thought that it better to know “a little about a lot of things” but also to know details on important matters too.  This line of thinking means understanding the mission, knowing what is important, and what priorities to focus our efforts.

I was once involved in a massive construction effort spread across several hundred square miles in combat.  Priority was to hard-shell building construction (which I knew a great deal) but also electrical generation and distribution (which I knew little).  My background had little to do with electricity, but I made a quick study of it.  I brought in a successful electrical engineer who spent a month teaching me the critical methods of electricity generation and distribution.

When you, as a leader, are given a mission, it is incumbent upon you to technically educate yourself quickly.  Relying upon experts to provide a recommendation carries significant and often unacceptable risks.  Experts come with knowledge and abilities a leader may desire, but they also come with preconceived ideas and biases.  Giving trust to an expert can go awry quickly.  Caution is, therefore, recommended.

The next time someone tells a leader that “you have to know a little about a lot and not a lot about a few things,” be suspicious.  Remember that the leader is the one who holds both the responsibility and authority to accomplish a mission, not some expert.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

17 thoughts on “A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

  1. Doc Blackshear

    This phraseology is nothing new. Why it’s still around, I don’t know because of its vagueness. It could mean just about anything. Although Gen. Satterfield has put it into context, I personally avoid its use. Too many times my bosses have given that to me as advice. I disagree with it for reasons pointed out here.

  2. Dead Pool Guy

    This just may be the problem with politicians these days. They just don’t know enough about what’s happening around them. Too much broad info and not enough deep understanding. Makes for simpletons to be elected. Why we keep electing them is beyond my understanding.

    1. KenFBrown

      Yeah, well that puts things a little into perspective, Dead Pool Guy (interesting name). We may make fun of politicians but there is a problem of serious magnitude.

  3. Jake Tapper, Jr.

    Just a thought but maybe the British royalty are in that situation now with Harry and Meghan dropping out of the royal family to pursue their own agenda. Some say that Harry is an idiot for following his stupid but pretty wife ‘off the reservation.’ This is the beginning of the fall of British royalty and everyone can see it but turn their head’s away to avert the inevitable. Harry is a ‘mile wide and an inch deep.’

    1. Yusaf from Texas

      An interesting twist on the on-going saga of British Royalty.

  4. Kenny Foster

    I found it interesting to me that many senior Flag Officers in the military would give this advice without additional thoughts on the bias the phrase has become. Sometimes I have found that using that terminology is a way of saying a useless employee has some ‘value’ when they probably do not. Great article. Thanks Gen. Satterfield for another weekend gem.

  5. Tom Bushmaster

    ‘A mile wide and an inch deep’ —– said of a person’s knowledge, intelligence or, in some cases, opinion. put another way, you’re saying the person knows a lot about everything, but nothing about a given topic.

    1. Eric Coda

      Describes someone knows a little about everything, but nothing in depth. It’s very similar to the phrase: “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

    2. Walter H.

      You may need to understand the meaning of “depth” and “width” in the context of knowledge or expertise in the phrase ‘inch wide – mile deep’. A depth of knowledge or understanding, is knowing all the fine detail and nuance of a subject. A wide, or broad, knowledge, is knowing the basics, but on a wide range of subjects.

    3. Scotty Bush

      Edgar Nye helped coin the phrase “mile wide but an inch deep”. He was talking about the Platte River which was a significant tributary to the Mississippi. However since it is not navigable, the watershed holds significant real estate but little utility or influence. It is often quoted in terms of that which possess a broad knowledge but tend to excel at nothing. ( Hey, I resemble that remark.) Some use the phrase to be diplomatic instead of stating someone is of no use at all.

  6. Army Captain

    I think you are right, Gen. Satterfield, that leader ideas like this one are a little too simplistic. Leaders do know a little about many things but they also have in-depth knowledge about many things also due to their experience. That is why leadership has ‘experience’ as an essential trait.

  7. Ronny Fisher

    Crazy stuff here today. Senior leaders are “supposed to know a lot about a little?” Anyway, thanks for an interesting twist on the technological knowledge of leaders.

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