A man from Daxiang said: “What a great man Confucius is! Despite his vast learning, he still hasn’t managed to make a name for himself in any particular field.” When Confucius heard of this, he said to his followers: “Which skill should I master? Should I master charioteering? Should I master archery? I think I’ll master charioteering.”
Who makes the best leaders? Generalists or specialists? There are strong arguments on both sides. Deep expertise and experience in a single domain such as finance or engineering shouldn’t necessarily disqualify you from taking on a senior management position in an organization, but it can lead to blinkered thinking unless you round yourself out with some time in sales, business development, or operations roles.
For generalists, on the other hand, a deep knowledge of technology is becoming an increasingly important requirement given how fast applications such as AI are taking hold in functions like HR and marketing. Indeed, the time is fast approaching when it will be impossible to perform effectively at any level without a solid grounding in technology and an understanding of how it can help boost the operations and revenues of your organization.
Perhaps the question of whether generalists or specialists make better leaders is the wrong one to be asking. A much more important one to address is how you and the members of your organization can keep up with all the latest technological, social, and business developments that are taking place. How, in other words, to implement the very same philosophy of lifelong learning that Confucius so enthusiastically advocated in both your personal and professional life.
This article features a translation of Chapter 2 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.
(1) Confucius was a widely acknowledged expert in ritual and the classics from an early age – though presumably the man from Daxiang was thinking more about more practical skills like farming than such esoteric subjects.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan. You can read more about the rather convoluted history of this temple in this excellent article by Josh Ellis here.