[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.