Can (and should) generalists lead experts?

| May 13, 2010

When does one decide to become a generalist? When did I?

Seth Godin insists that “art” should play a central role in the workplace. In Linchpin, he argues that seeing work as art is not only good, but imperative. I believe, however, that Godin would be better off calling his linchpin a generalist rather than an artist. This shift also highlights a consequence of Godin’s view: namely, that there are really two (very different) roles for linchpins: at the top of the proverbial corporate ladder, but also at the bottom. (After all, while considering his great flight attendant-come-linchpin as a maker of “generalism” rather than “art” is less satisfying, I think it’s a more reasonable view.)

Godin doesn’t say much about the linchpins that are stuck at the bottom. The good thing for reigning capitalists: they’re cheap, and relatively helpless. Why? There are so many of them. Democratic education is designed to produce generalists – but a sad consequence of poor educational performance is that it leads to bad generalists. Isn’t developing expertise a natural response to this situation? Indeed, hasn’t this been the emergent role of “higher” education? But now the predicament: the milieu of abundant expertise has taken the glamor away from generalism.

So what’s it like to be a school-aged person in the world today? You don’t have to look very far to see an abundance of despair (or, perhaps more tellingly, decadence). I think the reign of expertise is at least party to blame: expertise is the new mediocre, and the media’s obsession with expertise obscures the role of generalists.