The Generalist

Peter F. Drucker’s The Effective Executive is a goldmine of valuable management advice. Perhaps the meta-narrative of the book is an ethos for executives – to focus on those areas where they can provide the greatest amount of help to the organization. Here he talks about how to connect one’s own specialties to the larger organization:

The only meaningful definition of a “generalist” is a specialist who can relate his own small area to the universe of knowledge. Maybe a few people have knowledge in more than a few small areas. But that does not make them generalists; it makes them specialists in several areas. And one can be just as bigoted in three areas as in one. The man, however, who takes responsibility for his contribution will relate his narrow area to a genuine whole. He may never himself be able to integrate a number of knowledge areas into one. But he soon realizes that he has to learn enough of the needs, the directions, the limitations, and the perceptions of others to enable them to use his own work. Even if this does not make him appreciate the richness and the excitement of diversity, it will give him immunity against the arrogance of the learned—that degenerative disease which destroys knowledge and deprives it of beauty and effectiveness.

Peter F. Drucker – The Effective Executive – HarperCollins 2002 

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The limitations of history

History, like any other human endeavor, is subject to human error and the human tendency to change the story to suit one’s interests. The following are a number of quotes taken from the section The Exploration of History. 

Nothing can deceive like a document.

After twenty years’ experience of such work, pure documentary history seems to me akin to mythology.

Many are the gaps to be found in official archives, token of documents destroyed later to conceal what might impair a commander’s reputation.

The study of war history is especially apt to dispel any illusions—about the reliability of men’s testimony and their accuracy in general, even apart from the shaping of facts to suit the purposes of propaganda.

A sound rule of historical evidence is that while assertions should be treated with critical doubt, admissions are likely to be reliable.

Why Don’t We Learn From History, Basil H. Liddell Hart, p27-29

This seems disheartening if you’re trying to reconstruct actual events from historical documents. How is one to tell which account is the truthful one – and how to reconcile conflicting and both seemingly plausible explanations?

The Value of History

I think someone else has said something similar (that I’ve recently read – it might have been James Mattis) but it’s true that the study of history allows the reader to become wiser far beyond their years.

There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate if he is less than three thousand years old in mind.

And to get all meta on you, this understanding about history’s value goes back at least two centuries before Christ:

The point was well expressed by Polybius. “There are two roads to the reformation for mankind, one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful… we should always look out for the latter, for thereby we can, without hurt to ourselves, gain a clearer view of the best course to pursue… the knowledge gained from the study of true history is the best of all educations for practical life.”

Why Don’t We Learn From History, Basil H. Liddell Hart, p20

Creativity in Combat comes from “Seeds Long Sown”

Liddell Hart, known for his war journalism, works on military strategy and predictions about war, wrote this book about the uses and usefulness of history. He also covers a lot of ground in other areas.

Creative thought has often counted for more than courage; for more, even, than gifted leadership. It is a romantic habit to ascribe to a flash of inspiration in battle what more truly has been due to seeds long sown, to the previous development of some new military practice by the victors, or to avoidable decay in the military practice of the losers.

Why Don’t We Learn From History, Basil H. Liddell Hart, p22