WE TRADITIONALLY reward Hedgehog leaders who excel in a specialized area. In fact, most of our career paths are tailored for specialized knowledge. Their expertise clearly produces value by digging into and sometimes creating new pursuits opens opportunities. But what is being overlooked is the need for Fox leaders with a breadth of knowledge, the ability to see patterns and understand systems interactions. Fox leaders with generalist expertise should not be discounted.
Fox skilled leaders close silos, integrate systems, identify unintended consequences and provide strategic perspectives. Expansive knowledge typical of a generalist manager also adds value. Some organizations build Fox leaders by rotating them through different departments to guaranteed broad expertise.
Let me reassure you that this is not an either/or choice. An idealistic outcome would be that they are fused in one person but that is unlikely. Investing in becoming a Hedgehog expert was calculated by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers to be 10,000 hours or 10 years of study leaves little room for broad investigation. While this figure may be pop science, a dedication to specialization does frequently preclude other pursuits. Certainly, Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, and Goethe attained Renaissance man status with expertise that multiple arenas. However, most leaders decide to pursue only one path. And too frequently a bias toward specialization results.
The “jack of all trades and master of none” label discounts the need for Fox oriented generalist leaders. In the Big Data era, the ability to analyze and integrate information from multiple fields grows. Fox insights reduce the cost of pursuing the wrong strategy or being blindsided by events.
The Hedgehog versus Fox supremacy debate plays out in universities between general liberal art or a concentration in a specialized STEM major. While some students opt for dual majors, there is a clear trend to STEM specialization. Certainly, the job market seems to currently reward this choice due to labor shortages. However, the STEM crisis resulted from years of being neglected. Hopefully, an awareness of the need for balance will limit future extensive swings in labor supply and demand.
Business leadership and specialized competency provide the best success formula. Great leaders respect and reward both Fox and Hedgehog leaders. It may be time to validate your organization’s promotion and recognition practices to ensure an effective balance.