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April 8, 1995

The End of One-Trick Ponies

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There was a time in American history when entrepreneurs put together small traveling shows featuring trained animals—dancing bears, dogs that could walk on a ball, horses that could stand on an upside-down bucket. Such tricks played well with audiences, the first time they saw them.
The smart circus ringmaster recognized this and knew he wouldn’t last long with a cast of one-trick ponies. The ponies must either learn something new or the show would be forced out of town. After more than 25 years of coaching effective leaders, it’s clear to me the shelf life has expired on one-trick executive ponies.
The modern title for these folks is “the executive specialist”—corporate leaders who excel at certain aspects of leading and/or managing while ignoring other essential aspects. Industrialization brought a trend toward specialization, but look around you today. A knowledge-based workforce grows. And in tight labor markets where companies try to do more with less, multitalented leaders will be in high demand.
Consider the NFL quarterback. Teams long for an athletic quarterback, but that won’t get you far if you don’t have a strong and accurate arm. Oh, and you’d better be able to master the playbook, not to mention having the intuition that tells you when to run out of the pocket before that 280-pound defensive end plants you facemask-first into the turf. You also better cultivate a good relationship with the owner, the head coach, the temperamental star receiver, the other players, and the media, while avoiding any sort of personal crisis that might sack your reputation. If you rely solely on your physical abilities you won’t last long in professional football. The elite quarterbacks in the NFL are the quarterbacks who master the physical and mental aspects of the game.
Batman knew it. Deep, lasting success requires a wide repertoire of qualities both professional and personal.
Today’s business landscape, in fact, demands multi-functionality at almost every level. The executive specialist, therefore, is out of a job: his resume, too lean. His capabilities, too few. The challenges he faces, too diverse; his opportunities, too unpredictable; his limitations, too glaring. His bandwidth of contribution to the company is too narrow to justify the high cost of keeping him, or at the very least, the cost of advancing him. He’s no longer a superhero; he’s just another guy in a suit (hopefully not spandex with a mask).
This harsh reality for the executive specialist creates an unrelenting pressure to achieve something that’s not feasible: excellence at everything. The idea that we can be instinctively great at everything and be all things to all people is impossible. It’s a mindset perpetuated by the self-help industry.
Most self-help gurus teach from a silo, focusing only on the area they consider their expertise—fatherhood, salesmanship, listening, investing, real estate, team-building, cooking, dieting, and on and on goes the list. They establish an ideal for greatness in a particular area and sell the idea that anyone can obtain it. While many of these gurus are well intentioned and offer worthy advice, many propagate the misguided notion that the key to omni-competence is simply attending omni-seminars.
Could you excel at any one of those areas? Probably so. But could you excel at all of them at the same time? Not a chance.
Every single leader I know is juggling a number of balls all at the same time. Why? Because life and work require your participation and competence in a number of areas, not just the things you excel at.
We all wear a number of hats every day, all at the same time—boss, employee, partner, donor, father, son, neighbor, board member, coach, or owner. Success requires us to be more than just one dimension of greatness.
So these dueling realities—1) Omni-competence is impossible, and 2) What you can’t do will be your downfall—create the modern executive’s greatest challenge: how to effectively deal with the unrelenting pressure to be all, know all, and do all.
Because while becoming a polymath like da Vinci is impossible, we still must strive for the Renaissance ideal—being well rounded. We can’t afford to ignore the areas that don’t come naturally to us. When it comes to executive qualities, we need the good and the great … not just the great.
We can avoid this challenge and commit ourselves to a course toward mediocrity. Or we can embrace it, knowing that we’ll never achieve perfection, but that we can prevent our weaknesses from becoming career-fatal liabilities.

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