August 25, 2015


Career Perspective: Being a Policy Generalist Part 3

By: AFF Editors


Part 1 and Part 2.

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 is ensuring that our organization provides a timely response on a wide variety of topics, all of which must ultimately be informed by our core mission. As such, the position directly draws 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.


This post, written by Dr. Jameson Taylor, is an excerpt from the IHS “Creating Your Path to a Policy Career” guide.