Are You A Business Donkey?


Lessons from a quote attributed to Max Weber remains one of the best and most relevant advice of the past century. When the German politician and economist was criticized for publishing outside his field, his response was: “I’m NOT a donkey, and I don’t have a field,”. Max Weber’s position here is apparently against the “narrowing of scholarship ” but over a hundred years later, the lessons from this quote is relevant in almost all of life’s endeavours especially in the world of business.

As an entrepreneur, choosing the path of a donkey is taking unnecessary risks. The world of entrepreneurs requires multidimensional knowledge. It is the information at the disposal of the potential entrepreneur that helps them identify where market opportunities exist. Knowledge also helps them execute innovative ideas, and successfully lead a team through different business functions.

Businesses thrive with the help of free-range leaders. Unfortunately, too many managers today take pride in specialties.

It is come practice nowadays for new managers fresh from college to be encouraged to pick a major to specialize and grow into. Junior associates are also taught to specialize in one particular area which they grow in to advance in their career. They however have very limited all-round experience at their jobs other than have in expertise in one are of specialization. This means when they eventually become seniors they are not really built for such leadership position due to their limited experience. These are the donkeys Max Weber is talking about. These individuals may be hardworking and industrious but they are donkeys stuck to one discipline.

Generalists are naturally designed to thrive on the other hand but how well has the modern-day business setup positioned generalists to flourish?

The modern-day organizations are donkey breeders. Most of these organizations discourage collaboration or actively sharing knowledge in their enterprise. These are structured institutions that have designed vertical systems where people are never rewarded for their generalists tendencies. In such systems, people who explore their generalists tendencies, and pursue interdisciplinary roles are frustrated to abandon such desires.

The wide acceptance that remote work/ work-from-home has gained in recent times has further worsened this established system. People are now more stuck in their functional areas than ever before especially due to the absence of conventional knowledge sharing, and social interactions at work. A study conducted recently by Harvard Business School researchers revealed an unintended consequence of remote work. There are indications that in 2019 and 2020 companies across the globe “became more siloed during the emergency work-at-home measures, with employees digitally splitting off into more isolated communication networks.”

The Generalists must become intentional

It is on the generalists to consciously strive to develop themselves. Leaders should never be confined to a specialization. As you grow in the ranks, you have more reasons to sharpen your posture as a generalist. Leaders must be comfortable with being multidisciplinary to be effective leaders. The most effective form of leadership is leadership that draws from the experiences and identities outside their work.

Same goes for the young leaders who are just finding their way in business. It is best to start your career as a generalist. In the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World’ by Epstein, Epstein refers to the generalist posture taken by young leaders as “delayed specialist”. Epstein analyzed how specialist grow quickly in their careers and income but still get left behind by their generalist counterparts who have more rounded knowledge eventually. He also suggested that the specialist was more likely to quit once they encountered too many difficulties outside their specialty too early in their careers.

Organizations worth their salt will discourage making donkeys of their staff. Donkeys beget more donkeys, and when such individuals make up the organizations it becomes even hard for the nonconformist to deviate. However, a generalist unlike the specialist will have the last laugh in their journey.

As originally reported in (