February 27, 2013


Policy Generalists Make Better Leaders

By: Jameson Taylor

In the discussion about whether to be a policy generalist or policy specialist, here are some further insights.

Insight 3: It’s all connected.

In my view, everything is connected—and connectable. This may be the chief intuition that distinguishes the generalist from the specialist. Given that everything is connected, every subject is ultimately related to every other, and, more importantly, related to someone first principle. Even if the generalist cannot articulate this principle, I would argue it is the organizing impulse in all that he does.

To understand what I mean, let’s imagine a generalist and a specialist are asked to undertake a specific research project—say, on transportation spending. Initially, both the generalist and the specialist may approach the project with the same question: what is the best way to build good roads? The specialist answers this query by digging deeper, building layer upon layer of knowledge. But the primary question—how to build good roads—remains at the center of his work. By contrast, the generalist approaches the question, and its accompanying answer, as another layer, or rather, perspective, that reflects a deeper question. This question will differ somewhat, depending upon the analyst. Does this policy further good government? Does this policy further human rights? Does this policy respect and cultivate the integrity of the person? For all practical purposes, the answer to this deeper question may also recede into the background—say, owing to time and space considerations. But even if unstated, this primary question will remain as an organizing principle.

This, of course, is not to say the specialist does not also consider these more basic questions. The difference is one of approach. The specialist brackets such questions so as to better concentrate on the subject at hand. For the generalist, these fundamental questions remain front and center, demanding at least an acknowledgement.

Above, we wondered if the generalist suffers from intellectual arrogance. The counter to this hubris is a keen awareness that no matter how much specialized knowledge he acquires, the generalist still has not answered the more basic questions underlying these other inquiries. In the face of such unanswered questions, the generalist cannot help but be distracted from the acquisition of whatever specialized knowledge may be required to finish the project at hand—say, that policy report on transportation. If given proper direction, however, such distractions can be used to great benefit. And this leads to my final insight.

Insight 4: Generalists make better leaders.

It goes without saying that every leader must possess a broad vision that inspires and captivates others. In short, every leader must be a generalist in some fashion or another. The opposite—that every generalist is a leader—is not true. In my own case, I am a reluctant leader. (But this may not be unusual for the policy analyst, as such, who prefers study and research over other pursuits.) Nevertheless, it is precisely my ability to see the big picture, to approach things as a generalist that qualifies me for the leadership positions I have taken on. As director of research for the South Carolina Policy Council, for instance, one of my primary responsibilities was ensuring that the organization provide a timely response on a wide variety of topics, all of which must ultimately be informed by the core mission. As such, the position directly drew upon my strengths as a generalist: knowledge of a wide array of issues; the ability to quickly refocus on new challenges and ideas; and a clear understanding of what projects are essential to our primary goals. This is not to say that a specialist cannot also be a good leader. But the specialist qua specialist is not equipped to lead. Rather, it is only insofar as the specialist is able to communicate—or generalize—his unique knowledge that he is able to lead and educate others.

This latter point, though, speaks to the fact that maintaining a rigid distinction between the generalist and the specialist is somewhat misleading. Especially in small organizations, you will find the same analyst acting in both capacities—perhaps specializing in one policy area but also weighing in more generally on others. Again, the difference is one of approach. Yet reflecting on why you are naturally inclined to one approach over another is vital to attaining that most specialized knowledge of all—finding what will make you happy, not only as a policy analyst, but as a person.

Dr. Jameson Taylor is vice president for policy at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. This is an excerpt from the Institute for Humane Studies’ Guide to Public Policy Careers.

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