By Michael Holland

Why do we push leaders to follow a course of specialization of their leadership within tight functional silos?  Why do we think a CFO who has spent his whole career in finance would be a great leader just because he’s worked his way up a ladder within the finance silo?

The great Wayne Gretzky had a wonderful quote I recently came across regarding kids specializing in sports at extremely young ages and playing only one sport.

I played everything. I played lacrosse, baseball, hockey, soccer, track and field. I was a big believer that you played hockey in the winter and when the season was over you hung up your skates and you played something else.

He went on to talk about the value of cross-over skills gained only through playing multiple sports.  And there’s the balance of muscles worked and tuned to their full potential to consider.

It’s interesting to me that most organizations are structured and have setup rewards for specialized leaders which on its face seems logical.  But when we look deeper at what makes great leaders great, it is not because of their functional silo expertise.  They are great leaders because they have built broad and varied  leadership skills.  So, when we look at that CFO who seems good because he runs an efficient finance/accounting shop we are ignoring the capacity — the leadership muscles — that he never gained if he had spread his wings and worked as a leader in non-finance functions.

Functionally specialized leaders know the ins and outs of the business function and adequately lead their areas, but lack a depth of curiosity and passion for actual leadership. So they have a tendency to go on an auto pilot of sorts with blinders that creep in over time, planning assumptions that limit leadership perspective, and functional-cultural biases that perpetuate a false belief that functionally gifted leaders are great leaders.

There’s a convergence additive that comes only from taking a liberal arts approach to leadership, pushing for broad knowledge across many disciplines.  There are leadership experiences that can only be gained when a leader has to strain those brain muscles to find creative ways to solve problems/lead people when they don’t have all the answers.

Are you a young leader?  Get off your current track and take parallel assignments in other functions NOW to broaden and deepen your leadership capability.  Build all your leadership muscles and gain cross-over skills that will set you apart.

Are you a seasoned leader?  Take a missions trip to a different function.  Spend 2 months fully immersed in and working along with a group of leaders lower in the organization in a different business function.

Coaching Thoughts – For You and Your Peers

  • Why do you suppose organizations like the specialized leaders?
  • What functional area would you least like to work in?  Why?
  • Are you more like Wayne Gretzky or the burned out high school junior who’s been playing soccer every fall, winter, spring and summer for 7 years?