Winston Churchill

Why Polymaths Make the Best Leaders

To be a great leader, you must be a polymath, or at least think like one.  It may seem daunting – a polymath is some kind of multi-talented genius, right? The truth is that you  don’t have to be da Vinci, Hildegard Von Bingen, or Einstein to reap the benefits; it simply takes a bit of work, and some rewiring the way you think.

The standard definition of a ‘polymath’ is someone who excels in a variety of seemingly unrelated fields (the ‘seemingly unrelated’ is important here).  Some even go as far to define a minimum number of three unrelated fields, but the idea is the same.  A polymath is good at a lot of different things.  A genius?  Not necessarily.  

Polymath (Greek) 

Poly=Many, Mathanein= Learning

What doesn’t get discussed is the way many polymaths think about learning to become fluent in a number of seemingly unrelated fields and the personality traits that help them.  It turns out that these approaches and character traits lend themselves very well to great leadership. There is evidence to suggest that much of the influence these leaders command stems from their ability to combine knowledge from a range of fields.    

It takes a multi-skilled, curious, unbiased, and adaptable person to lead with conviction – the traits of a polymath.  This, however, isn’t of any great help unless we can break down what it takes to be a polymath and, more importantly, how to think like one.  

Specialization vs Polymathy

Specialization is on the way out.  Most careers that require a specialized set of skills or base knowledge will be replaced by AI and automation within the coming years.  The remaining tasks that will be within the realm of human ingenuity will be complex, interdisciplinary and require a creative approach.  

For the sake of condensing hundreds of years of human history into a couple of paragraphs,we can say that specialization has existed in societies mostly to secure the power and financial gains of those it serves.   The more specialized the worker the more productive they are in that field, and more reliant upon the system that contains them.  

The apparent need for specialization was only reinforced with the vast expansion of human knowledge during the age of enlightenment.  The anxiety of such expanse of  knowledge during the enlightenment led to the codification and classification of fields of knowledge, and the tendency for intellectuals to focus on strains of knowledge to stay relevant.  

The fate of the ‘complete’ polymathic human was all but sealed during the industrial revolution, when industrial goals of governments and corporations. Schools were designed to produce specialized workers that could, at best, read instructions and complete tasks specialized to their area of production.  

A holistic and detailed education, more conducive to polymathic thought, was only enjoyed by a select few, and those select few typically fed into the high-level decision making ranks of society.  

What it takes to be a polymath

The thing about polymaths is that, rather than engaging in exhaustive exploration of each individual field of knowledge, they look for connections between them and gaps which could be closed.  A researcher in the field of polymathy and leadership, Michael Akari, breaks down what’s required to become a polymath: breadth, depth, and integration.  

Obviously, a polymath needs to have a wide range, or breadth, of expertise, and often in areas of knowledge that seem very far removed from each other.  Let’s say it’s microbiology, jazz saxophone, and computer coding.   While these examples may seem completely unrelated to each other, there will be some overlap of knowledge or skills, but we’ll talk about integration later.  Even subjects as seemingly disparate as science and music/arts have a lot of overlap, particularly when it comes to creativity.

Depth of knowledge is where the polymaths are separated from the ‘serial hobbyist’. One of the more contentious aspects, the required depth of understanding of expertise one needs to have in a given field to be a polymath is hard to define and measure.  Typically, expertise in a field can be demonstrated by award (degrees, certificates, etc), experience, or critical acclaim (as is often the case for music and arts).  

Integration for polymaths means synthesis.  Taking ideas or processes from one field and applying them to another.  Recognising where there are gaps in the established area of knowledge that could be closed, or at least approached, from a different perspective.  This is what makes polymathic learning accessible, the integration of sets of knowledge actually makes it easier and faster to learn new things.  

Three Polymath Leaders

While a polymath makes a great leader, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all, or even a great number of our leaders are polymaths – perhaps that explains a lot!  History, however, does provide several examples who, through roles in politics, industry, or philanthropy, have demonstrated exemplary leadership and elicited much influence. Here are just a few examples to prove their potency.

Winston Churchil

It’s often the case with polymathic humans that their major feats overshadow the sheer breadth of their polymathic pursuits.  This is certainly the case with Churchill, with his leadership and diplomacy through the turmoil of WWII being remembered by all, while the rest of his polymathic life remains veiled. 

His lesser known but also greatly impressive feats include being an artistic painter, prolific writer of fiction, historian, and amateur bricklayer.  Most of his writing was in the form of non-fiction publications, historical journals, and biographies (he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1953), but he did write one work of nonfiction.  As a painter he produced 500 works of varying subjects, receiving encouragement and advice throughout his life from well known artists of the time.  

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill’s career as a leader overshadowed the range of his polymathic pursuits.

It can be argued that Chruchill’s great breadth and depth of intellectual and physical pursuits helped to shape the great leader that saw the United Kingdom through some of its darkest days.  The ability to see the nature of Europe’s problems from differing perspectives, and using ideas from a range of fields allowed him to become the visionary leader that he is known for today.   

Thomas Jefferson

While hosting White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, John F. Kennedy said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”  This statement alone gives you an idea of the magnitude of Jefferson’s polymathic pursuits.  

In addition to being a founding father and Third President of the United States, Jefferson was a lawyer, architect, writer, could speak several languages, and even play the violin.  He was known to be a book fanatic and read voraciously.  

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, in addition to being a founding father and president, was also a prolific polymath.

A curious mind and thirst for knowledge – also a trait of a polymath – led him to become one of the most influential figures in his time, fighting for human rights and freedom of thought that would set the scene for the American revolution.  

Howard Hughes

A bold character in business who pushed boundaries, innovated, and built profitable businesses.  Made famous by the film adaptation of his life featuring Leonardo DaCaprio, The Aviator, Hughes was more than just a pilot and business owner.  

He was an acclaimed movie producer, set up a medical institute, and led the development of the infamous “Spruce Goose”, the giant sea plane that attracted so much criticism.  

Howard Hughes
Not just “The Aviator”, Howard Hughes was a movie producer, engineer, businessman, and supportive leader.

The seemingly unrelated fields of movie production (creative arts), aviation, business, and engineering meant that Hughes could draw on a wide range of fields to innovate and make bold moves that ultimately paid dividends.  Not only was he a prolific individual, Hughes was a champion for others, identifying and supporting others that shared his passion and work ethic.  

Polymathic Approach to Leadership

The below paragraphs highlight a few of the ways in which a polymath makes a great leader.  There are many more subtle benefits to be had and surely some that have yet to be uncovered, but here are the big reasons why it pays to think like a polymath if you want to be a leader.  

Integrating as a Leader

Applying the polymathic approach of integration to leadership means becoming sufficiently familiar with all aspects of an organization and synthesizing these fields of knowledge. This means acquiring knowledge/experience in all aspects (breadth), devling far enough into the field to understand its inner-workings (depth), and looking for patterns, gaps, and overlap between each of these areas (integration). 

It is their synthesis of all these processes happening concurrently to move the organization towards a goal in an efficient way that makes a great leader.  Almost anyone could spend enough time in their relevant departments, learning the tricks of the trade before moving on to the next.  What makes a difference is the ability to think from each of the varying perspectives to generate an ideal balance and road map for the future.  

This holistic understanding of all facets of the working groups allows for major decisions to be well informed, taking into account all the moving parts and parties involved.  Most importantly, this polymathic knowledge understands how the different parts of the organization inform each other, affect each other, and where the overlap of skills and information exist. 

Adapting and Improvising in Leadership

One of the great challenges of leaders and educators today is that, with the rate that the world is changing, we don’t know what the needs of the future will be.  In an age where automation, machine learning, and digital interconnectivity is rapidly changing the landscape of both work and social life, a new approach to leading and learning is required.

It is in these conditions that a polymath has a distinct advantage.  Having wide-ranging knowledge, even if not as profound as a specialist in an area, means a polymath can draw on a wider range of knowledge bases, improvise and upskill with greater ease.  The specialist, however, is backed into a corner of their own making, not having the varied skill set to improvise or shift direction according to the conditions.  

This echoes the Hedgehog and Fox analogy put forward in the famous essay by Isiah Berlin, itself a revival of the ancient Greek proverb of Archilochus.    A hedgehog is very good at one thing, whereas a fox is pretty good at a whole range of things.  When confronted with danger, the most a hedgehog can do is roll up into a ball and protect itself.  A fox, however, has a range of skills at its disposal for survival, and is generally more adaptable to the situation.

There has been some argument that the hedgehog, because he only knows one thing, is more decisive and therefore more leadership material.  This model of leadership, however, is outdated; good leaders should be decisive but, more importantly, their decisions should be based on multiple perspectives and ever-changing contexts.

Hedgehog and fox
The Hedgehog and the Fox analogy portrays the adaptability of polymaths.

More than just being able to easily adapt or improvise, polymaths are also great at creative problem solving.  Creativity itself is described as novel or unique ideas that come from the combination of ormerging of different cognitive areas.   Through their integration of a wide range of disparate fields, and by constantly looking for connections or bridging existing gaps between areas of knowledge, polymaths are inherently creative.  

Non-Bias as a Polymath

It’s pretty hard to escape bias and, if we’re honest, we have to assume that we can’t be completely without bias.  Polymaths, however, tend to demonstrate much less bias.   Because of the wide ranging interests and experience, they are more inclined to view issues from varying perspectives and address a subject with minimal prejudice.  

Specialists, on the other hand, tend to view things from the relatively narrow perspective of their own field.  Also, they’re more inclined to participate in ‘groupthink’ – the phenomenon that occurs when a group of people, especially with similar interests or expertise, come to a conclusion on something without enough extensive evaluation or critical reasoning.

The Future is Polymathic 

The world has already begun changing, and changing fast.  While advanced knowledge in a field or several fields of knowledge will always be advantageous, the need for specialization in a single field is only going to diminish.  This is not something to be worried about, but rather relish in.  

For too long the constant need to produce excess and grow economically have forced us into the dehumanizing process of ultra specialization. In a world where specialized tasks will be the realm of automation and AI, we can once again be curious, multifaceted, and polymathic humans. 

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