Generalist or Specialist

Generalist or Specialist

In my days in the British Army, we had a large pool of generalists called Infantry. I can say that now, because I can look at the subject with the benefit of hindsight and with the fact of being rather more detracted than I was when I was in.  Even then we had specialists for doing specific tasks  such as Engineers and Signals and more recently, Aviation and specialists combat operations teams.  Even in the Army, a specialism is recognised and pays more because of the additional training involved and the added value such a specialism brings.

As with all things, successful specialisms form the basis for future evolution, an example being  at the turn of the twentieth century we still used line formations in the British Army, our experiences against the highly motivated volunteer South African Boer Commandos, who used specialist tactics that subsequently influenced the way we dressed and the way the British Army conducted it’s business on the battle fields.  There have always been elements of any organisation that have required specialisation such as cooking, rations accounting (logistics) and in Cavalry units a Farrier to shoe the horses (now mainly ceremonial) . The introduction of technology has also had an impact that has resulted in evolution – machine guns and artillery along with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons has meant that battlefield tactics are completely different now to what they were a hundred years ago, and that’s my point.

With the changing aspects of any battlefield, the commanders have to make erudite decisions that take into account natural factors such as whether it is daylight or night-time, the weather and the topology of the ground, but they must also take into account friendly forces and their expected contributions, as well as enemy numbers, morale and technology as well as trying to determine the enemies intent.

I am not saying businesses are in a battle, but our own business commanders are similarly juggling lots of information, some of which may not be correct and their strategic decisions will have an impact on the outcome of our future careers and even on the existence of the business organisation we are currently working with.

As an Executive Business Coach in Bahrain, I often have to deal with the “loneliness of command” and the subject of specialisation or generalisation often crops up. Using my experience in the British Army, I usually explain that the title Captain Generale was used in many of the private armies across Europe to mean Captain of that Army. In subsequent years as the system evolved, the rank of General was one applied to any senior officer who commanded more than a Regiment, so taking a leaf from the history books of such a long lived organisation, we can surmise that at a certain level one has to become a generalist and focus on one’s organisational strategy and command.

Following on from this, I should point out that decision making should not be done in isolation and neither should anyone expected it to be. All the great generals had large teams of advisers helping them to make the right decisions and when we view many of those decisions with the benefit of hindsight, the clarity and long term soundness of the information used in the decision making process is hugely important. The ancient battle of Salamis where the Persian Sea fleet suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Greeks based upon subterfuge by Thermistocles has led a number of historians to claim that a Persian victory would have significantly hampered the development of ancient Greece and therefore by extension, western civilization, which leads them to claim that Salamis is one of the most significant battles in human history. I can also go on about Napoleon’s advance into Russia which Hitler subsequently copied and my personal favourite which is the classic Charge of the Light Brigade where Lord Cardigan’s original orders were misinterpreted by the chain of command which resulted in the heroic frontal assault onto the well prepared gun positions of the Russian artillery. I am sure you all have your own cases where advice has led to a different outcome because the advice was predicated on information that was not reliable, but that is a whole topic for a different day.

     So, How can we influence and help our commanders?

By working hard to provide the best information possible to enable them to make the best decisions. This means becoming an expert in your area of responsibility – a specialist in the organisation. By being well-trained and ready to react and able to take decisive action when called upon to do so. This doesn’t just mean you, but the whole team needs to be ready for action! By developing risk analysis plans and reviewing these with the team and identifying and agreeing mitigating courses of action to reduce or neutralise the risk. You should also train your team to be a team, ask them to be better at what they do and help them develop an understanding of the other roles in the team, so should anybody be experiencing difficulties, others can step in and support. Use mistakes or failure as a teaching opportunity and make the most as a team to analyse the issue and to work out a strategy that provides a better process for addressing the same issue in future. This enables the team to learn from their mistakes and to move forwards with the benefit of experience as one of their guiding principles. Remember, your commander and his commander are making decision that affect you based on the integrity of the information you provide – so make sure it is as true and correct as possible and trust your specialism to support your generalist!


Executive coaching is available by special arrangement.  Thank you for taking the time with me today – I hope it made you think!

Mike Jackson – Executive Leadership Coach and Action Effect-u-ator.

Together WE will make it happen!


Normal service may NOT resume!

Normal service may NOT resume!

We have all this modern technology, but ………………..

I love reading books – good old fashioned hardback books. They appeal to one’s senses – they‘re tactile, they rustle when you turn the pages and they smell like a book, which is more than can be said for an Ipad or kindle. As a young scholar I remember reading about the burning of the library at Alexandria and how many historians used this to represent an irretrievable loss of a body of collective knowledge. In those days, the writing medium was papyrus or parchment which was expensive and difficult to come by as were the people capable of writing down the wisdom of the day. The thought of losing a body knowledge like that struck me as tragic, look at what has been lost over the years ……..Damascus steel, Greek fire, Roman Cement and a variety of ancient plant drugs that had medicinal value to quote a few, but unlikely to happen in these more modern times.

These days technology has moved to the point where any literate person may add to the body of knowledge or more often, simply express their opinions. We can tweet, text, add stuff to our Facebook pages and update our other numerous social personas, but does it really benefit anyone? The current trend seems to be the need to write and publish an e-book and whilst I am not knocking people’s creativity, I prefer to read something that either makes you question a belief or makes you think and reflect, rather than rehashing known subject matter or telling me what your kids had for dinner!

I believe that Nuclear weapons provide sufficient deterrence to preclude major large scale war, but smaller conventional wars are therefore more likely and at time of writing this article, there are 10 wars and 8 serious armed conflicts documented. But we don’t hear much about the ongoing Cyber warfare that is happening.

Are we susceptible?

The Federal government of America has admitted its power grid is susceptible to cyberwarfare (Shiels) and many of us are aware of the Shamoon virus attack in 2012 on the Aramco servers (Infosecurity), so we know that the game is afoot and that cyber-attacks are probing various countries / businesses and testing their defences. As individuals we are subjected to reports of identity theft and cyber-scams. What would happen to your memories if someone infected or collapsed the cloud?

Remember what they said about the Bibliotheca at Alexandria!

Pace of Change

More concerning for me is the pace of change – keeping up with the formats that we use. How many of you remember the Betamax / VHS video formats war nearly forty years ago? We hardly use video tape these days. What about vinyl, cassette tapes and do you remember the different floppy disk formats for different computers like the Atari and the Commodore 64? Given the fact that we store large quantities of digital data in the cloud are any of you asking the question – How can we be sure that our trusted memories are going to be in a recoverable format and will I still be able to access it in twenty years?

Take Action

So there’s TWO reasons why you should take action to protect yourselves.

As a Project Management consultant with an interest in Business Continuity developed from my days during the millennium bug and subsequent banking implementations, I strongly advise that you take advantage of the relatively cheap costs of external hard drives and get yourselves backed-up. It doesn’t take long and you will feel much better in the knowledge that you have your contacts and personal pictures stored on an external device. Don’t forget to back-up your important e-mails and any important documents.

If you run a business, talk with your IT team and check the backup procedures and policies – get them to run back-up and restore exercises and check to see they can do it without any problems. Also get them to ensure that any long-term data storage, such as certificates, deeds, wills, testimonials, codices and financial records require by the governments, are in a format that is still supported. If it is not, get it converted while the opportunity exists.

Your data is your most important asset –care for it, protect it – ‘cos the next time your system crashes – well, normal service may NOT resume!

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  1. Shiels, Maggie. (9 April 2009) BBC: Spies ‘infiltrate US power grid’. BBC News.
  2. Infosecurity magazine (8 May 2014) Infosecurity Magazine Home » News » Saudi Aramco Cyber Attacks a ‘wake-up call’, Says Former NSA Boss

Worryingly, how can we be sure that what we write remains in its true form? There is an ongoing debate at the moment centred on the updates and changes of the Original 1978 STAR WARS and the subsequently updated and enhanced versions released. I am now led to believe that it is practically impossible to find the 1978 original anywhere! Mr. Lucas is entitled to want to revise and improve his creations, I just hope his motivation to enhance his films is based upon sound financial reasoning and artistic desire rather than some other more sinister intervention.




Life’s lessons are tough!

I can still recall Staff Sergeant Kirk screaming, “STAND STILL you ‘orrible little man…..So what!!   Wot you goin’ to do NOW  Sir?”.

As I think back now, I can’t help but smile and remember that whilst it was hard and tough ….bloody tough!….., we kept a sense of humour and we had our Sergeants looking after our common interests – although you wouldn’t think it at the time!

I was lucky, I was selected to go to Royal Military College Sandhurst (RMAS) and there I was taught by the Sergeants and qualified senior ranking officers.  The word Sergeant comes from the Latin Serviens meaning, “One who serves.” and not just anybody makes it to Sergeant.  The Sandhurst motto is, “Serve to Lead” and the British Army has been developing high calibre officers using methods developed over many years and through many iterations and refinements.  It is an interesting fact that many of the Sheiks from the Gulf region including the King of Bahrain have passed out from Sandhurst.

The training system, which has been developed over centuries, uses experienced trainers (the Sergeants) coupled with a sprinkling of new ideas (new technology) and challenges young potential officers to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes in order to develop a deeply ingrained understanding of the subject.  Let’s face it, two kilometres in the wrong direction on a freezing winters night teaches you to check your map and compass properly and to involve your team!  Experiential learning coupled with practical skills and values that are honed by continuous practice and embedded by reinforcement (drills) produces leaders that are recognised as amongst the best in the world today.

New Mission

These days, I am on a mission to change the way we train our businesses and Government organisations. I propose that we should adopt the Sandhurst techniques developed over the centuries to cultivate our executives of tomorrow.  High quality training, in an environment where they can make mistakes and learn from them, supported by high calibre, experienced mentors and coaches who can reinforce core values and lessons that develop better performing managers who really will make a difference.

I am not saying we should shout and bawl at our young managers or subject them to gruelling physical marches and assault courses, although some would benefit I hear you say.  But, let’s use that which historically works, let us learn from history and apply the knowledge and experience in order to develop our next generation of leaders and let us move forwards safe in the knowledge that we trained our next generation the best way we could – we nourished them and coached them to be better!

Back in the UK, I coached Rifle and Shotgun – not much use in Bahrain unless the Olympic team needs a shotgun coach?  These days I consult and coach around corporate transition management, programme / project management at a senior level, along with organisational change coaching for groups and teams using many of the principles learned over the years.  You are welcome to link up with me on LinkedIn or get in touch on the e-mail below.

“Right you ‘orrible lot!   Get your kit and march off!  …   Look sharpish, you’ve spent long enuff readin’ – Go on now,      GET BACK TO WORK     the lot of you.”.

………JACKSON!!!! ….where do you fink you is going?….. I a’int finshed  wiv you yet     I fink I might need a spot o’ coachin’   …   Er Sir !”.