Why do we need to educate and hire more generalists?

Leonardo da Vinci was a generalist

Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. He also designed the aeroplane, the helicopter and balloon centuries before they were built and flown. He was an anatomist. In short, he was a generalist and according to a theory articulated by David Epstein in his new book Range, his genius in each of these disciplines was probably because of the range of his polymathic interests, skills and insights.

Fast forward to sport today, and Epstein compares and contrasts the careers and achievements of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Tiger Woods lived and breathed golf, golf and golf from the age of 2. In contrast, Roger Federer played and experimented with a range of different sports including skiing, soccer and basketball before he settled on tennis in his teens. Epstein’s theory is that Tiger Woods had a safer, more bounded environment in which to hone his craft, whilst Roger Federer honed his all-round abilities in a more open, demanding and “wicked” environment.

In education today, some philosophies such as the International Baccalaureate recognise and encourage this diversity of learning and experience. But most secondary, tertiary and business education focuses and values the specialist, with a bias towards the STEM subjects and a bias against the arts and humanities. The result is that we educate and train subject matter specialists who know a great deal about not very much. They are trained to see trees and not the wood.

This may work for personal career development today, but specialists in accounting or marketing are finding it challenging to be the CEOs of the future. They not only to lead a whole range of specialists, they need to grasp the breadth of insights and skills needed to integrate and respond to all of the rapid changes in our natural environment; in our societies; in our politics; and in our technologies.

That’s why I’m now finding a growing demand from clients who want their senior leaders to become more curious, more informed and more thoughtful about our world.

This isn’t coaching. This is about exploring the world as Leonardo da Vinci did. And this is why I’m calling this program, Renaissance.

“Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance paiting to cook a meal.”

E. O. Wilson