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Should “Jack” Be Allowed to Lead All Trades

“A jack of all trades is a master of none.”

Typically, within Defence, leaders are selected from their trade.  Classic examples would include an infantry company commander or an engineer squadron commander.  However, within joint organisations or specialist hubs, the leadership may have little previous knowledge of the organisation’s core business.  An example of this is generalist leaders posted into 77 Brigade as information operations planners.  

How much knowledge, skills, expertise, and behaviours (KSE-B) do generalist leaders within these organisations have of their core business?  Should leaders within these organisations be specialists or generalists?  Moreover, should UK Defence look to grow leaders with specialist KSE-B or recruit them from the industry?  

This article will first conduct a review of generalist vs specialist leadership within the context of specialist hubs.  It will then examine how UK Defence can improve the use of specialist leaders in the future.  Where appropriate, it draws out the views of key leaders in Government, industry, and UK Defence interviewed by the author.  The paper argues that specialist leaders offer a significant advantage in domains with high disruption, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).  

“Specialist leaders offer a significant advantage in domains with high disruption”

This article will also argue that UK Defence is not structured to provide the opportunities needed to develop specialist leaders in these domains.  Furthermore, the principal advantages of specialist leaders are that they are more likely to drive research and development (R&D), use intuitive thinking more effectively, and create cultures of innovation.  Finally, the article presents suggestions for growing the number of specialist leaders, including the introduction of lateral recruitment, industry partnerships and a greater reliance on specialist reservists.

What is a specialist leader?

Specialist leaders are defined as having: (1) inherent knowledge, acquired through technical expertise combined with high ability in the core business activity; (2) industry experience, which stems from time and practice within the core business industry; and (3) leadership capabilities, which include management skills and a leader’s innate characteristics.1 

Generalist vs Specialist Leaders 

“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes is better than a master of one.”

The infamous ‘jack of all trades’ proverb is commonly used. It is rarely, however, quoted in its entirety.  In its incomplete form it is colloquially used to suggest that generalists are often less effective than specialists.  When viewed fully, the adage advocates for the opposite; that generalists are frequently better than specialists.  The two lines of thought are both visible within industry and government organisations and each type of leader has its advantages.

In 2018 academics showed mathematically that the benefits of being a generalist leader are most substantial in fields with a slower pace of change, e.g., mining, oil & gas, and manufacturing.2  This is portrayed graphically in figure one. The benefits arise because individuals with a greater breadth of KSE-B can utilise a more extensive set of cognitive recombinations for their work.  An example of this would be Henry Ford’s revolutionary leadership in car manufacturing which was inspired by his former experience with sewing machines and meatpacking plants.  However, if in the time it takes a generalist to acquire a breadth of KSE-B the domains have changed then their KSE-B may be obsolete. 

Figure 1. The benefit of a generalist/specialist leader with a varied speed of change in the domain they are leading.



Conversely, specialist leaders are more beneficial within fields with a high pace of change, otherwise known as disruption.  The benefits of specialist leaders are most pronounced when taking advantage of new technology in their own domain.  Specialists are therefore more suited as leaders within fields such as software development, data analytics, ML, AI, autonomy and robotics, and visualisation domains.  Within such fields, Commander UK Strategic Command suggests Defence leaders require “a quantum shift in their approach to technology.”3  However, evidence has uncovered that most industries have moved away from hiring leaders considered specialists.45 

There is a significant need for specialist leaders to guide, develop and apply these new

Although within certain industries there has been a shift toward hiring more generalist leaders, the industries that continue to hire specialist leaders are likely to be within sectors with a high rate of technological change (disruption).  The drive for Defence to change the digital status quo by adopting the ‘digital backbone’ approach, leveraging offensive/defensive cyber capabilities, and utilising AI/ML, means that disruption within Defence is arguably at its highest since the end of the Cold War.  There is a significant need for specialist leaders to guide, develop and apply these new capabilities.  Global advisor to Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) Ram Charan argues that the greatest leaders are selected when an organisation fully understands the context in which they operate and to do that, leaders with the right KSE-B are needed6 

Furthermore, industries with a high rate of technological change often require high spending in research and development (R&D) to promote innovation and enhance the understanding of the environment they are operating within.  Specialist leaders have been proven to be more likely to invest in R&D and are more likely to produce effective organisations within these domain.7  Therefore, if UK Defence wishes to conduct internal R&D, the evidence shows that  it needs specialist leaders who can drive it.

Specialist leaders: qualified but not always invested in

Conversely, Defence may wish to continue to outsource R&D to agencies such as Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) or even to Defence contractors such as General Dynamics.  The dangers of outsourcing are that leaders are at risk of losing vision of R&D direction and are unable to quality assure and quality check (QA/QC) as effectively as if done in-house.  A prime example of this risk materialising is the failed delivery of the Ajax armoured vehicle.  Yet given that Defence spends considerable resources in producing staff officers who are conversant in the management and procurement of such platforms through the Battlespace Technology Course (BTC) this seems to be an argument against the specialist leader.8  The BTC’s aim is to provide “… a broad understanding of fundamental technologies, their acquisition and support, and a deeper understanding of a particular sub-set of battlespace technologies and capability integration, to enable graduates to contribute effectively to the delivery of Defence capability”.9

Pictured is the new AJAX prototype shown near its future assembly site in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. Credit: MOD.

Defence clearly understands it needs specialist leaders.  It is therefore right to question why developing them has failed.  Possible causes may be due to the 2-year posting cycle which can lead to project officers not wanting to “rock the boat” as they will rarely see a project through to completion.10  Alternatively, the specialist leaders associated with Ajax may not have had experience or the confidence to effect project direction or have genuine access to QA/QC it’s progress. Instead, knowing their own limitations, officers may defer decisions upwards reversing the tenants of mission command and overloading general staff officers.   

How does industry do it?

Apple’s leadership model is successful within its highly focussed domain of producing electronics and this may not be directly translatable to UK Defence.  However, the concept of agile non-persistent experimentation (ANPE), where users can experiment with new technology within weeks or months, without complete feedback cycles, is a translatable concept to UK Defence.  Although ANPE may suffer from Collingridge’s Dilemma11 this is preferable to not having emerging technologies at the heart of specialist organisations.  Similarly, companies in non-related fields have begun to mimic Apple’s model with success.  For example, McKinsey, BCG, and Bain are increasingly hiring specialist consultants in areas such as data science.  This is driven by client demand for tailor-made solutions rather than “jack-of-all-trade consultants delivering one-size-fits-all solutions”.12

Additionally, when leading teams, companies such as Apple rely heavily on specialist leaders for strategic decision-making.  The company believes that it is easier to train experts to become leaders than train leaders to become experts.  Therefore, deep expertise in their function is an essential requirement for managerial positions at Apple.  As a result, Apple’s leadership practices follow the ethos “experts lead experts”.13  This method of leadership is also applied by Ocado Technology, whose CEO explained, “I do not think I could do my job effectively if I had not spent five years studying or practising software development”.14 

The risks of contracting specialist leaders 

The Civil Service operates within a different employment progression model to the UK Armed Forces.  The Civil Service enables people to remain in job roles indefinitely.  This allows employees to develop KSE-B for prolonged periods which enables the deep expertise required for specialist leaders’ generation.  When the Government created the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) in response to the COVID crisis the JBC could select its leadership from across other Civil Service to enable its successful establishment. Therefore,  it was almost universally true that the leaders were specialists with its new core business.  For example, the author led a team modelling COVID-19 outbreaks and had an MSc in Geospatial Intelligence.  The Head of Advanced Analytics (Modelling) had a PhD in Economics and Modelling and the JBC Director had a PhD in Medical Statistics and Epidemiology.  JBC’s leadership model resulted in an organisation of specialist leaders providing decision support to the Government and minimising ill-informed or ignorant decision-making, which can be hugely damaging.  

“trapping NHS T&T in an expensive cycle of extending contracts to retain vital knowledge, expertise, and capabilities”

However, after a few months the majority of the specialist leaders initially selected from within the Civil Service had to return to their former roles.  The ensuing specialist leader vacuum was filled with contractors from Deloitte, McKinsey & Company, and Ernst Young within both leadership and non-leadership positions.  This meant that corporate knowledge was largely held by a temporarily contracted workforce, trapping NHS T&T in an expensive cycle of extending contracts to retain vital knowledge, expertise, and capabilities.

As specialist capabilities such as AI/ML become more ingrained into Defence it will quickly become economically unsustainable to commission contractors indefinitely.  Instead, a native solution of specialist leaders is needed to keep pace with technology and remain economically sustainable .  

A gap in specialist education

 The challenge for UK Defence is ensuring that the right specialist leaders are in organisations where they understand the core business within emerging domains.  Identifying specialist leaders within these domains is a significant challenge as the UK has a national shortage of KSE-B within fields such as data science, AI, and ML.15  Further, the problem of sourcing specialist leaders within these domains may have a ceiling of OF4 limiting the attractiveness of a career in Defence.  Beyond OF4, the UK Defence education programme, which includes Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC), Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC), and the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) enables those who complete it to consider themselves strategy specialist leaders in the majority of command roles.  This programme does not allow OF3-6s within Defence’s specialist hubs to be any more than a generalist leader, unless a specialist education programme is created which enables longer postings in any one role.16  Such a programme is badly needed.  

Image of the MAST-13 (now known as Madfox) Autonomous Surface Vehicle. Credit: MOD.

Officers assigned into positions purely to gain a wider experience as a generalist leader without allowing time to become a specialist have even been reported to be liable to “…indulge in some behaviours injurious to the success of programmes they manage”.17

Does it matter?

Even so, does having generalist leaders within organisations such as 77X, NCGI, and “The Foundry” really matter?  Does it affect performance?  

Research out of Taiwan suggests that generalist leaders are more likely to make better leadership decisions as they communicate more effectively across their teams.18  Similarly, a 5963 firm-year study builds on this with the findings that specialist leaders hold fewer meetings to discuss core business than generalists do. This is presumably because they discuss their business less, although the research  does not correlate this to better decision-making.19  

An article written by the CEO of Leadership Forum, Inc., suggests that generalist leaders do not require deep expertise to communicate an organisation’s core business.20  Generalist leaders are likely to possess more developed briefing skills with significantly more  ‘executive presence’ than specialists.  However, the research lacks depth on whether a generalist with better briefing skills would be more suitable for briefing technical content to technical persons.  In rapidly changing domains, a specialist leader who has deep KSE-B in the content they briefed is preferable over a generalist with a more significant executive presence.

“Generalist leaders are likely to possess more developed briefing skills with more significant ‘executive presence’ than specialists.”


Similarly, other industries have recognised the need for an interpreter for the same purpose, named an Analytics Translator.21  Given the significant time required to develop deep KSE-B, an analytics translator explaining the complex to a generalist leader may be a viable short-term solution.  However, it would require a different culture that encourages creativity and diversity of thought.22

Setting the right culture 

“I can play the most significant individual role in making sure our culture is healthy, we hire the right talent, and we make decisions the right way based on a good set of values.”

James Matthews, CEO Ocado Technology

The CEO of Ocado Technology explains that he views culture setting as the foundation of his role.23   Nevertheless, to ensure that the culture hits the mark with the intended teams, leaders must have developed emotional intelligence (EQ) linked to the needs of their team.  EQ is defined mainly within academia as: (1) the ability to understand, harmonise, and display one’s feelings and emotions; (2) the ability to recognise, interpret and communicate with other people’s feelings and emotions; and (3) employing these capabilities to help an individual or team manage and control impulses and stress, resolving interpersonal and intrapersonal complexities, and make appropriate decisions.24

Academia is mainly in agreement that leaders with a developed EQ have better leadership performance and potential.26272829  However, this paper argues that between a generalist and specialist leader both scoring highly in EQ, the specialist leader is more effective in the leadership of the specialist team.  This is due to the ability for a specialist leader to recognise and interpret the feelings of a specialist workforce more easily due to their KSE-B in their team’s area.  However, interestingly there is no available research the author could find on whether a specialist or generalist leader is more likely to develop a higher level of EQ.

RAF Fylingdales on the Yorkshire Moors. Credit: MOD.

More comprehensive benefits for EQ include better strategic decision-making and innovation. A joint Chinese and Indian research project found that an improved EQ of leaders led to higher levels of success and innovation within high-tech organisations.30  Furthermore, a recent  study by Verizon found a 50% rise in the perceived importance of EQ within the post-COVID world.31  Therefore, it would appear that leaders with a developed EQ is an increasingly important demand of leaders by their teams and may naturally improve innovation cultures within specialist organisations.

Moving to a culture of innovation… what do we do about it?

A new innovative culture must come with a genuine acceptance of experimentation that does not result in an outcome, something that General Sir Patrick Sanders admits is still lacking in his recent DSEI speech.32  The rhetoric of ‘innovation by instinct’ and the acceptance of risk has been alluded to throughout Defence publications for years, but there does not seem to be a sincere drive to bring this to fruition quickly.33  Within large organisations, such as UK Defence, there is a significant risk that ‘the process’ becomes a substitute for thinking, Elon Musk describes this as “allow[ing] you to keep people who are not that smart, who are not that creative”.34  To break this mantra several methods which may improve innovation and innovation management.


Firstly, a top-down approach from the senior leadership team (SLT)  to push new and different ideas.  Analysis within the R&D intensive pharmaceutical industry has shown that the research orientation of senior leaders has a positive statistically significant effect on higher innovation outcomes.35  Research orientation refers, inter alia, to a leader with a postgraduate degree.  Holding a postgraduate degree is likely to help a leader appreciate the nuances of novel innovation, e.g. experimentation, uncertainty, failure and time to maturity.  Although this research was directed towards the CEO of pharmaceutical companies, a higher level of academic or experience-based quality should be a requirement for leaders within Defence’s specialist hubs.  An example of organisations that have neglected innovative ideas is visible in the many Defence Ideas pages set up for organisations and not monitored for incoming ideas.


Secondly is to design key performance indicators (KPIs) that reward innovative thinking over specific results.  Although usually considered intangibles, several models can measure organisational performance, focusing on knowledge and innovation management.36  More recently, similar methods have produced positive outcomes within companies like KPMG.37  However, it would require a fundamental mindset change as, currently, UK Defence is accustomed to the use of  KPIs in the pursuit of achieving outcome-based objectives.38


Thirdly, there is a strong correlation between the physical workplace and a culture of innovation.  Creating space for innovation is highly likely to increase innovation cultures.  A possible solution would be for units to use innovation funds to create a dense network of smaller innovation spaces, e.g. the Army Innovation & Experimentation Platform.  A larger dedicated space for innovation is the Defence Battle Lab, which professes to offer the first true dedicated innovation, experimentation, exploitation centre and is due to open in November 2021.39

If innovation is of true importance to UK Defence, a greater emphasis on financial aid will be required to which no outcome should be expected in return.  A densified network of small innovation spaces is preferable to more significant ‘hubs’ as smaller innovation circles have the flexibility to change direction quickly and are less likely to suffer from the sunk cost fallacy if a project is no longer viable/required.  An example being the creation of ‘makerspaces’ Within 36 Engineer Regiment.40

“A densified network of small innovation spaces is preferable to more significant ‘hubs’” 

A global review of innovation management by researchers found that cultures created from innovation spaces were highly conducive to generating and developing ideas for high disruption areas quickly, e.g. AI and ML.41  Unlike 36 Engineer Regiment, ‘maker spaces’ for specialist hubs would not need to be physical but could be virtual sandpits with software instead of tools.  However, barriers to the effectiveness of virtual innovation spaces are the skills shortage and lack of deep expertise in innovation management.  This suggests that a specialist leader would have the edge in creating a thriving innovation culture over a generalist.  

Moving forward with specialist leaders

Defence should look to mimic Apple, Ocado Technology, or the JBC style of employing specialist leaders to achieve its goals of rapidly exploiting technology.  However, growing the inherent skills of the native workforce may not be quick enough to challenge adversaries in emerging fields such as ML and AI; a quicker solution would be lateral recruitment of individuals with the KSE-B required.

Lateral recruitment using Israel’s Defence recruitment model would allow Defence to headhunt the best technical talent from a population-wide pool.  A lateral recruitment model would fit more closely with the MOD’s recently stated intent for a different commercial model with industry to exploit the “technological tsunami” enabled by AI.42  Lateral recruitment and the utilisation of the Reserves is a viable method of ensuring a short-term supply of specialist leaders.  In 2013, three consultations with industry surrounding specialists concluded that a lack of innovation in military thinking was a block to specialist leaders in domains such as cyber .43  In response, the Cyber Reserve programme has successfully attracted high-end talent from industry and academia; most have graduate and postgraduate degrees, with twelve holding PhDs.  

“However, growing the inherent skills of the native workforce may not be quick enough to challenge adversaries”


UK Defence may wish to explore sponsored partnerships between specialist hubs and industry to promote the use of specialist leaders.  An example of industry partnerships leading to the use of specialist leaders is 507 Specialist Team Royal Engineers (Railway Infrastructure), who included a Network Rail board director as an industry representative whilst exercising in October 2020.44  The use of specialist reserves enables the military to acquire KSE-B challenging to generate or maintain within UK Defence.  However, it does not fully address the need for a more permanent solution.


Industry giants such as Apple, Ocado Technology, McKinsey, KPMG, and Bain have all benefited from specialist leaders, opting for the “experts lead experts” model within their organisations.  Their leadership model is flourishing as it recognises the improvement to R&D, strategic decision-making, and the creation of innovation cultures that specialist leaders bring.  It is doubtful that UK Defence will grow enough native specialist leaders with the correct KSE-B within high disruption domains within its current construct.  However, there are significant opportunities to attract and develop specialist leaders through top-down cultural change, a review of posting times, KPIs which recognise innovation, lateral recruitment, industry partnerships and recruiting specialist reserves.  Whichever combination of methods are decided in the future, it is clear to the author that we must incorporate specialist leaders and their generation into UK Defence or risk specialist organisations that do not reach their potential for R&D, innovation, or effective leadership.

Luke Parker

Captain Luke Parker MSc CEng is a serving Royal Engineer officer within UK Strategic Command’s National Centre for Geospatial Intelligence. Most recently he has been seconded as a Senior Civil Servant within the Government’s Joint Biosecurity Centre.

The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.


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