08/02/2011 02:49 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

Leadership Is Not Just for Experts!

I constantly bang away trying to persuade people that philanthropists can force new solutions to major challenges in our lives, in our children's lives, and in the direction of our society as a whole. I take great pleasure in discussing philanthropic plans over breakfast with a wide spectrum of business people, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and causes. I like to think the advice I give, based on my own experiences founding Starlight, First Star and EDAR, may have had some small strategic value and brought a rather large dose of encouragement to some splendid people.

One common thread in these invigorating conversations at Nate & Al's is that people are concerned that if they are not themselves expert, then they may lack the knowledge necessary to exert leadership in complex areas. "How," as one person asked me, "can I hope to effect change through investing my money in cancer research when I know nothing about cancer beyond what I've read in the newspaper?" The answer cuts directly to the core problem of many apparently insoluble challenges to our future health and happiness: there is simply so much knowledge that generalists fear to tread in areas full of experts, areas that cry out for direction, purpose, coordination and plain old-fashioned leadership.

King Henry VIII of Great Britain was not very clever at marriage, but as a king he was probably the last world leader who really did know as much about every subject relevant to running a country as his most knowledgeable experts. He could debate agriculture with his agronomists, military strategy with his generals, economics with his economists (such as they were!) and philosophy with his philosophers. He knew as much about the law as any lawyer and could lecture all comers on history. Was this because he was a highly intelligent man with a king-sized brain?

Far from it: the simple fact was that in the 16th century human knowledge was not yet very extensive. You actually could know just about all of it if you applied your mind. Those days are long gone. The exponential growth of knowledge since then has not resulted in a commensurate increase in the size of the human brain nor in our mental capacity. We are the same old computers trying to process vastly more complex rafts of knowledge and interrelationships of facts. So how have we coped?

We have responded to daunting amounts of knowledge by narrowing our fields of study and expertise. I recently had trouble with my left knee and was stunned by a conversation with the radiologist at the local university hospital. "Tell me" I asked, "how do knees rank against ankles: are they more or less interesting?" The radiologist replied, "I only do knees; I don't do ankles, elbows or any other part of the body. But I do knees from all across the country: the MRIs come in to me electronically, and I make recommendations... but I am the knee man and nothing else." I immediately had to check that yes, he did right as well as left knees. In business, in government and in science we have been forced to drill down very deep to reach the cutting edge of knowledge and expertise. To get there, we have been forced to yield our flanks: our view of the world is very, very narrow, and our experts see things only through the prism of their own vastly specialized knowledge.

This would be fine if the problems afflicting the world could be solved by applying a single area of knowledge. But this is far from true: as the specialists have become more specialized, the world has become more complex. How could one dare to state an opinion on the Middle East without a profound knowledge of history, comparative religion, agriculture, geography, warfare, and land sciences? How could one really begin to apply scarce resources "highest and best" in medical research without first knowing everything about the interrelated sciences that affect the human body?

But we do: we are a society run by specialists who do not personally possess broad knowledge anywhere near the cutting edge of the multiple areas that together comprise the challenges they seek to address. The needs of the large portions of mankind who slip through the cracks of our attention are daunting precisely because they require collaborations of the knowledgeable, which rarely take place. For good or for bad, such is the arrogance of leadership that our lack of knowledge rarely seems to hold back the firmness of our opinions. What, then, are we to do about this?

Firstly, I suggest that an intelligent generalist, especially one with the power to make significant philanthropic contributions, can drive measurable answers to intractable challenges. Secondly, a business entrepreneur who understands the intricate relationship between goal and process can add greatly to the leadership required to crack complex social and medical problems.

I remember some years ago engineering a meeting with General Norman Schwarzkopf. I flew to Tampa to persuade him to become Campaign Chairman of the Starbright World online network for seriously ill children. I was describing how Starbright brought together three different areas of expertise: pediatric medicine, high technology and the entertainment industry, and that we were always yanking the experts back into the middle, toward the goal we'd set for the Network. He stopped me abruptly. "What do you know about the United States Army?" he asked. "Absolutely nothing, sir," I replied. "Well, let me explain it," he went on. "When you join the Army you are not just given a rank, you are also given a specialty. You're a rifleman, a cook, a signalman... it doesn't matter how much you're promoted up the ranks: you always wear your specialty badge until the day they make you a General. And in the ceremony they take away your specialty badge, because you are no longer a specialist, you're a General, and you are now responsible for the overall goals of the military operation." I realized at that moment why focusing on goals in the Army had raised generalists to a position of supreme power. The Army realized that if they put a specialist in charge, they would always be pulled away from the goal and toward the special focus of that individual. Not only was generalism the origin of the word General, but it made absolute sense in a life-or-death battle situation to put in charge someone who could think about overall goals and purposes without getting bogged down in the lattice-work of supporting specialized thinking.

I am reminded of the story of the eminent architects who met in an expensive restaurant over lunch to discuss how on Earth they could retrofit an elevator into a particular old building where it was now required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. After an agonizing discussion of various solutions, none really workable, the young waiter leaned in and asked, "I apologize, but I have an idea where you could put the elevator." The architects were somewhat contemptuous but asked him to tell them where he, a mere server, might think of locating the elevator when they could not. "What if you put it up the outside of the building?" he asked. And they did.

When the financier Michael Milken was forced to address prostate cancer because of his own illness, he did not just inject money into the existing field of research. He redesigned the whole plan of attack. He applied those same intellectual skills he had developed in the bond market with considerable success to new challenges of research medicine, where dozens of highly specialized researchers had tried hard, but never previously worked together "highest and best."

As philanthropists we can do more than just give money to specialists: we can actually coach them to reassess their impact on their goals and readdress the goals themselves.

When we started First Star a dozen years ago, I had nothing but a vague idea that children's constitutional rights were lacking in the United States and that this directly resulted in our poor performance against the rest of the First World in addressing the needs of abused and neglected children. Over these 12 years we have brought together 500 world-class experts from the fields of child psychology, the judiciary, the legislative and executive branches of government, social work, medicine and law enforcement. On not a single occasion has one of these experts asked me why on Earth I think I can presume to exert leadership in a field of two dozen specialties, in none of which am I an expert. On the contrary, I am told all the time that what has been lacking in the past is leadership. That the solutions we have driven by colliding the different expertises together are self-evident, splendid and much to be desired. I take from this that the failure all along has been one of leadership and not one of knowledge.

When Valerie Sobel lost her child, she made lemonade out of lemons: she formed the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation to provide financial help to families below the poverty line in which the illness of a child is causing the single mother to lose her grip on financial sufficiency. Valerie Sobel has made a measurable difference in the lives of hundreds of afflicted families with a philanthropy she invented herself, by understanding a need and daring to address it. No amount of organizational training or specialized knowledge could have replaced her over-arching concern, compassion, intelligence and refusal to take "no" for an answer in creating her charity.

If you have been lucky enough to accumulate wealth, and/or if you are an entrepreneur in business, you have the power to change the world as you know it. Do not be held back by vague ideas that only a specialist with decades of training can drive solutions to difficult problems. Sometimes exactly what it takes is someone who can question old assumptions. That person can be you, and the world may be a better place if you dare to lead from the front.