(Note from Art: this is a follow-on to my recent self-development themed post, “The Hard Work of Getting Better at What You Do.”)

Of the many important themes espoused by the late and arguably pre-eminent management thinker of the latter part of the twentieth century, Peter Drucker, perhaps the most valuable to us as individuals, is his constant reminder that we are responsible for our own self-development. His classic article at Harvard Business Review, “Managing Oneself” (fee) should be once-a-year required reading for all of us.

One of Drucker’s more provocative suggestions as described in William A. Cohen’s enjoyable read, “A Class with Drucker-The Lost Lessons of the World’s Greatest Management Teacher,” is for managers to actively work at developing expertise outside of their chosen field as a tool to preparing to become a senior or strategic leader. Drucker himself was a professor of Japanese Art and an author of a book on the subject.

Drucker’s perspective on mastering a second discipline, as described by Cohen:

“Drucker went on to tell us that it was essential that business executives master at least two disciplines, and that one of them must be outside of the field of business. He said this was important in the preparation of an executive for higher responsibilities, because, … one never knew what future responsibilities might be thrust upon one unexpectedly.”


“Expertise in more than one field was good training for sudden responsibilities in yet another field, and was the only evidence that the manager was capable of mastering more than one discipline.”

Facing Ambiguity and Embracing Discomfort

The pursuit of expertise in a very different arena from one where we’ve labored for years is an exercise in moving beyond our own comfort zone. By pursuing something all new, we deliberately place ourselves in a position of ignorance and discomfort. The only way forward beyond frustration towards success or mastery is to challenge ourselves to learn new ways of thinking and acting.

What a remarkable means of preparing to tackle the move from individual contributor to manager or from manager to senior organizational leader. In both of these situations, the knowledge and skills that worked for us historically are rendered either less valuable at best or nearly useless in the extreme. For example, success as a marketing professional or software developer is certainly positive, and part of why you are tapped to try something new and more ambiguous. However, your historical subject matter knowledge is just one small portion of what you will need to be successful with a host of different and more ambiguous people and strategic challenges.

Towards New Problems and New Ways of Thinking

Immersion in literature, art, music or any pursuit that requires different pathways of thought and action, offers valuable training for coping with new and ambiguous situations in your career, not to mention a serious and often much needed dose of humility!

While Steve Jobs seems to serve as everyone’s favorite data point these days, there’s no doubt his many interests in art, literature, philosophy and even calligraphy, profoundly influenced his views on design and strategy. And while I can’t quantify the impact of my own journey into jazz piano, sans talent and any prior musical training, I have every belief that it’s helped me with humility, patience, problem-solving. Additionally, I have a new appreciation for adapting and improvising as a leader…not in an undisciplined manner, but in a structured manner, much like improvisation in jazz.

Another leading and thankfully still very much alive management thinker, Ram Charan, writing in “Leaders at All Levels,” describes an apprenticeship approach to cultivating senior strategic leaders.

The essence of the approach is to ensure that the individual is exposed over a number of years to a succession of increasingly complex and ambiguous challenges. Those who cultivate the skills to create value out of ambiguity are candidates for senior or top roles.  Others who struggle to cope may remain as valued contributors and tacticians, but are not candidates for top roles.

The Bottom-Line for Now

Self-development is a full-contact sport. We have to fight resistance, beat-back distraction and commit ourselves to embracing our own ignorance and doing something about it.

Take your pursuit seriously and you cultivate a new sense of humility, different views on how to tackle complex problems and an underlying sense of confidence that you will be able to find a way forward, even in the most extreme and vague circumstances.

What’s your alternative field of pursuit?

This blog originally appeared at artpetty.com.

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