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  • Writer's pictureTracey Camilleri

The Power of Generalists

The sixteenth century British philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon kept a statue of a brass head in his study. As he was so erudite, the rumour went round that the brass head spoke to him, answering any question he might put to it in the manner of an early ‘Alexa’. No mere man - surely - could demonstrate the ‘many-sideness’ that Bacon did? Peter Burke’s book Polymath is however full of stories of such people – the ‘Renaissance’ men and women through history who have succeeded in embracing problems through the means of multiple lenses - generalists, polymaths. Foxes see the world through multiple lenses This multi factored approach has always interested me, particularly as regards leadership where leaders are often promoted due to their mastery of one particular discipline (often finance). A few years ago, a conversation with the academic leading a nano-medicine lab at Oxford prompted him to reflect on what slowed their progress. It was not a shortage of investment, a lack of ambition or indeed talent that held them back. It was in fact the way that his researchers had been educated. He lamented the disadvantages and narrowness of early specialisation. To do the new work at pace, he needed biologists who thought like chemists, who calculated like physicists, who understood like psychologists and could communicate like lawyers and philosophers. He needed dedicated, brilliant generalists and they didn’t exist. The German polymath Leibniz writing in the 17th Century expressed the very same idea: ‘What we need are Universal men. For one who can connect things can do the work of 10 people’. So, can one escape these ‘water-tight compartments’ of specialisation that come to us via our education and the thin pathways of life? Can kings (or CEO’s for that matter) indeed become philosophers - as Plato suggested would be necessary for an ideal state to come into existence? The broad ability to stand outside one’s world view, to see things through the lens of a different discipline or way of thinking is arguably one of the most important skills that a new leader needs to develop. The readiness to travel imaginatively across borders, to poach, translate, to go beyond - ‘Plus Ultra’ - is something that marks out leaders who are truly shaping the future rather than simply future-proofing their organisations. Peter Burke draws many conclusions in his book but I will point to just three here: The Quality of Your Attention Polymaths have both a quality of attention and resistance to distraction that is rare. They are able both to ‘zoom out’ to ask the big questions and to ‘zoom in’ to anatomise the smallest detail and to learn from it. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre, the geology and the tiny plants in the grotto are precisely accurate down to the last petal, even though they are not the primary subject of the painting. No detail is too insignificant for Leonardo’s attention. In our age of distraction it is almost impossible to pursue an uninterrupted long thought. Unlike the 19th Century mathematician Henri Poincare who was concentrating so hard on a problem that he was surprised to find himself half a mile down a road carrying a fairly large bird cage in his hand . He had no memory of where, why or how he had acquired it. What do you turn your unreserved attention towards? The Quality of your Curiosity Apparently there is a gene for curiosity according to researchers at the Max-Planck Institute. The gene is Drd4 – and is found in birds, the Great Tit (Parus Major) to be precise. It is not known if there is a similar gene in humans. Nonetheless, curious leaders who look for new questions rather than solutions, who are not fazed by unrootedness and uncertainty but rather look for opportunities, for patterns as they are in the process of emerging see the shape of the future before others do. They are not so immersed in the present, in operations and data that they can’t exercise their imaginations. The great philosopher Isaiah Berlin talked famously of Foxes and Hedgehogs. Foxes, according to Berlin, see the world through multiple lenses, their dynamic is a centripetal one, flinging questions out to the edges. The dynamic of the hedgehog is a centrifugal one, bringing things back from the edge to a single synthesising central idea, to a coherence. We have known successful leaders who are Foxes, some who are Hedgehogs - and some who are both. The central uniting factor is the quality of their curiosity and their confidence to ask questions, not to know everything. These men and women joyfully welcome in new ideas as the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg talks about the pleasure of learning about a new topic being ‘akin to skiing on fresh snow’. The Quality of your Time Even in the 17th Century, thinkers like Robert Burton who wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy were experiencing overload. He wrote of the ‘vast chaos and confusion of books. We are oppressed with them, eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.’ Now for us, with the explosion of data and information to absorb, time has all but turned tail and fled. What I learned from Peter Burke’s book was that these clear-eyed polymaths have an iron discipline when it comes to time. John Herschel, the nineteenth century polymath, spoke of ‘husbanding every atom of time’. We too notice that successful leaders are remarkable for the sense of ease that they bring to exploratory conversations as if they had all the time in the world. To quote Virginia Woolf, time ‘flaps on the mast’ like a flag in a breeze. They know how to listen. They are ruthless about delegating tasks that others could do instead (while offering support). They stop things that are not future facing even if that involves confronting stranded assets of investment, time and money. They literally make time for reflection, deliberately inviting people into their calendar who bring new perspectives and fresh thinking. They are like the explorers of old who took astronomers, geologists, botanists, physicists, naturalists and myriad experts out on their journeys of discovery. In 2021, we will need all the clear-eyed polymaths we can get. Tracey Camilleri

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