How Diversifying Your Knowledge Can Make You a More Agile Leader

In these rapidly changing, and uncertain times, organizations need to be more flexible than ever. "In this environment, change agility needs to be part of the new organization’s and leaders’ DNA. It can’t just exist in a few people in the organization; it needs to be the way business gets done." But how leaders can become more change agile and and make change thinking in their organizations contagious?

In a previous article, I wrote that leaders need more right brain thinking, thinking that looks forward and uses imagination. Not to the exclusion of left brain, reductionist thinking, mind you, but in addition to it. Iain McGilchrist postulates that we need both hemispheres for reason and imagination.

How do we tap into the imagination of our right brains?

As a society, we value specialization, knowing more and more about less and less. We believe that this is the way to succeed. But this is reductionist, narrowly-focused left-brain thinking that has permeated our culture.

Our society believes that a single-minded focus leads to better productivity and efficiency. And greater success. But the work force in increasingly disengaged and disillusioned, much of which is due to a lack of stimulation. Many feel that they're not being sufficiently challenged.

" So many of the greatest innovations in the arts and sciences arose when outside wisdom was brought to bear on a discipline that had become complacent in its own criteria."

Desmond Morris said in his bestseller, The Naked Ape, "There is a serious snag in the specialist way of life. Everything is fine as long as the special survival device works, but if the environment undergoes a major change the specialist is left stranded." This is where we are today. How do we ensure that we're up to the flexible kind of thinking these times require?

What we need, Waqas Ahmed argues in The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility, is intellectual and occupational diversification, or polymathy. This is not a luxury, but a necessity in our 21st century complex times. Rather than diluting our knowledge, diversification enhances it. "The best business leaders are those who demonstrate a strong knowledge of and involvement in different parts of their organisation, which can include fields ranging from finance, law and communications to technology and trade as well as product and sector knowledge." Steve Jobs, for example, "had a thorough grasp of all aspects of the corporation, ranging from technical engineering and artwork to design to marketing and finance."

Fifteen of the 20 most influential scientists in history were polymaths. 

Winston Churchill, one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century, "was also an accomplished soldier, artist and scholar - a 'many-sided genius' according to his Queen. He was also a prolific writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953; he wrote a novel, two historical biographies, three volumes of memoires, several histories and numerous newspaper articles as a war correspondent. As an oil painter he produced over 100 works ... which have been exhibited worldwide - he even wrote a treatise on painting." Churchill's greatness in leadership has been attributed to the fact that he was a polymath.

Our brains are biologically adapted to keep learning new things. Everything we learn and everything we experience changes our brain. 

"Each and every thought, emotion and inflow or knowledge will either subtly or fundamentally impact your perspective on any given thing over time. This is not just intuitive speculation, but a neuroscientific fact. Your evolving nature manifests in your connectome - the complex, ever-changing circuitry unique to each brain."

And this ever-changing circuitry is what allows us to think flexibly. It's called neuroplasticity and is why outside interests and hobbies, unrelated to our work, are so important: They build new connections we otherwise wouldn't have had that allow us to think in new ways.


Ahmed, W (2018). The polymath: Unlocking the power of human versatility. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Onderick-Harvey, E. (2018, May 18). 5 behaviors of leaders who embrace change. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved March 18, 2020 from 

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