A Generalist Can Be a One-Trick Genius, Too

By Marshall Goldsmith

You might think that CEOs would be the ultimate generalists. But peel away the necessary but generalized leadership skills — clear communication, persuasion, and decision-making — and you’ll find that every good CEO has a very specific skill or core value that they regard as their OTG. One CEO’s OTG might be running a productive meeting; another’s might be creating total alignment at every level of the organization. 

The genius in each CEO’s trick is that this isolated skill is the foundation of the CEO’s credibility and respect. It governs everything. 

This specialist quality isn’t always apparent in great leaders. Perhaps it’s hidden by the weight of their authority and by their big personalities. But it’s there if you look long enough. 

For example, I read an admiring profile of my great friend Frances Hesselbein in David Epstein’s 2019 bestseller, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, a book whose thesis (and subtitle) would seem to contradict the argument I’m making here. 

Epstein provides a nicely detailed account of Frances’s greatness: her early years as a busy volunteer, how in her sixties and seventies she revived the Girl Scouts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Bill Clinton awarded her, and Peter Drucker’s assertion that she was the best CEO in America—presumably making the case that Frances’s distinguishing leadership skill is her wide-ranging background. 

Yet he doesn’t quite manage to put his finger on the one skill that actually sets Frances apart. Frances sees everything through the prism of one question: How can I be of service to others? It’s her “genius” through which all her formidable strengths of wisdom, authority, integrity, and compassion flow. It is how Frances makes others see the world her way. It is how she leads. 

For example, in 2014 I invited a half dozen clients to my home in San Diego for an intense two-day session to help each person figure out what they wanted to do next. I also invited Frances, who was ninety-eight at the time, knowing her presence would automatically raise the wisdom level in the room.

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

On the second day, our attention turned to a woman I’ll call Rose Anne, not yet fifty, who had sold her business three years earlier for a healthy sum and moved with her husband from Minneapolis to a small town in Arizona to enjoy the fruits of her labor. The move had been disastrous. Rose Anne wasn’t built for gazing at Arizona sunsets. The restless entrepreneur in her invested in a local restaurant and a fitness club, customer-facing businesses that were vastly different from how she had made her original fortune. 

Within a year, as she applied her hard-nosed business skills in the town, she managed to alienate everyone she met, so much so that her husband threatened to move back to Minneapolis if she didn’t make it right. 

As she related her tale of woe, we made suggestions, none very helpful— until Frances, who spoke last. She told Rose Anne, “It seems to me that you’ve been thinking a lot about serving yourself. Perhaps you should try helping others.” 

All of us knew she was right. Even Rose Anne, lost in her despair, nodded in agreement and thanked Frances. All Frances needed were two pithy sentences, obvious to all of us the moment they were uttered, to give Rose Anne a path to turn her life around. That is her OTG. 

Frances lives to serve others, and her example persuades strangers to follow her lead. Her authority stems from this single attribute, not the other way around. At heart, she is a specialist masquerading as a generalist. Five years later, Rose Anne ran for mayor — and won. 

By the way, I’m not deriding Epstein’s book. Range is fascinating, well-argued, and rich in detail. If I read him correctly, Epstein is arguing in favor of later-in-life specialization, the kind that comes after we’ve sampled many disciplines and settled on the one worthy of our laser-like focus. I believe we’re saying the same thing: If we’re lucky, we begin as generalists, end up as specialists. 

The life of an artisan—a serious craftsman committed to doing a worthwhile task as well as it can be done—is my image of a one-trick genius at work. It suggests a career that you regard as a calling rather than a job, pursued more for personal fulfillment than a paycheck. 

This is the benefit of being an OTG: When you feel fulfilled, your world expands rather than constricts. You discover that your narrow expertise can be applied to an ever-wider array of problems and opportunities. 

OTG is not an insult that sentences you to a shrunken, one-dimensional life. 

To the contrary — when you develop a highly specialized skill and practice it like a dedicated craftsman, you can call the shots. You’re more unique and therefore in greater demand. You’re more engaged and blessed with greater purpose. 

You are checking all the boxes of fulfillment and, in turn, living and earning your own life.

Marshall Goldsmith Meme
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