The natural philosopher
If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.
– Sir Isaac Newton
Throughout history, every once in a while, a person transforms our understanding of the world in a way that is truly amazing.
In Sir Isaac Newton’s case, “the man who birthed the industrial revolution” gave us scientific discoveries on motion and energy that are still as relevant today as they were 300 years ago.
Possessing a mind of unparalleled genius, he also discovered the laws of optics (figuring out that white light is composed of several colours), the laws of motion, and the universal law of gravitation.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, Newton also invented integral and differential calculus after a friend posed a question on the shape of planets. Amazingly, most of these phenomenal achievements were made by the time he turned 26.
Newton (1643-1727) was a physicist, astronomer, mathematician and philosopher whose work revolutionised science in the 17th Century, and had enormous impact for social and industrial advancement.
I asked myself, what can we learn about leadership from a physicist?
As I started studying the life of Newton, I discovered that there is a lot we can learn about leadership and ‘transformation’ from everyone, including a scientist who lived more than three centuries ago.
One of Newton’s most powerful traits was his insatiable curiosity. He asked questions about everything he observed which (like Leonardo da Vinci and many other great leaders I have written about) was something that served to enhance his creative intellect to even greater levels.
Leadership starts with curiosity. When we are curious, we begin to ask questions, which begin to help us see the world in a different light.
The most famous example of his curiosity comes to us in the story of the apple that supposedly fell on his head, eventually leading him to outline the laws of gravity.
According to Newton himself, he had witnessed an apple falling from a tree, which led him to question why it fell straight down rather than at an angle.
This question is what led him to develop his work on motion and gravity, which he began working on during a two-year break at Cambridge University, as his college was closed due to The Great Plague.
But Newton didn’t just ask great questions, he also pursued the answers. We need to learn and pursue answers too.
I am sure there were a million people before Newton who observed an apple fall and asked why it does so, yet none pursued an answer.
Great leaders question everything, but they also know that only when the questions are answered that curiosity translates to innovation.
Being curious is great. Answering your unanswerable questions is what changes the world and makes it a better place.
Patience and perseverance
In 1687, after an 18-month period of intensive work, Newton published his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (commonly referred to as Principia), which is still considered among the most transformative and influential scientific books of all time.
His ability to work at length on the most complex questions was due to his inexhaustible perseverance.
He once noted: “If I have done the public any service, it is due to my patient thought”, before adding: “It is not that I am so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
Setting aside Newton’s unique genius, the quality of asking the right questions and being able to patiently think them through is one of the hallmark traits of any transformational leader.
When we attempt to be creative and innovate, it’s always the case that nothing worthwhile comes from quickly rushing through ideas.
The best innovations are those supported by a strong foundation of forethought and consideration. A key question for us to ask: Do we block out enough time in a day to ‘patiently think’ as Newton did?
If we have no time for patient thought, don’t expect to be innovative or creative.
Sir Isaac Newton
Passion for learning
Newton also had an unyielding passion for learning and poured all his energies into building on the knowledge of others that went before him.
He was known for always having a notebook and pen beside him as he jotted down excerpts of the various books he read.
He was heavily influenced by the works of the French philosopher Rene Descartes, as well as the astronomers who developed theories about the Earth’s place in the cosmos in relation to the Sun and other planets.
These included Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo. Newton paid a touching homage to his fellow scientists in one of his most quoted sayings: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” And he meant it.
Newton believed that we had to learn from others.
His creativity stemmed from combining ideas learnt from reading other works. We can do likewise.
Redefining the world
In Newton’s view, being an innovator didn’t mean that he necessarily had to reinvent the wheel – he just had to create a refined version of the ones that had come before.
He understood that, in order to make any kind of valuable progress, it was vital to first learn from and understand the work of prominent experts.
From this vantage point, we are better able to see what others can’t and build on previous discoveries and achievements. But Newton did much more.
He understood that, for anyone to truly change the world, relationships matter. He once said: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges”, urging everyone to break down the silos between us and connect deeper with each other.
Only when we truly connect and learn from one another will we make a deep impact.
While some have argued that Newton was the greatest scientist to ever have lived, others often make comparisons between him and Albert Einstein, who challenged Newton’s view of the universe by asserting that space, motion and distance were relative rather than absolute, and that the universe was far more complex than Newton could ever have known.
With over 200 years separating the two scientists (Einstein was born in 1879), it would have been fully expected by Newton that his work would be built upon and new observations made, just like he had done from the great scientists who had come before him.
Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the work of Sir Isaac Newton laid some the foundations that greatly enriched our understanding of the universe.
When asked to sum up his life’s achievements, he replied: “I know not how I seem to others, but to myself I am but a small child wandering upon the vast shores of knowledge, every now and then finding a small bright pebble to content myself with while the vast ocean of undiscovered truth lay before me.”
Roshan Thiran is the founder and CEO of the Leaderonomics Group and is constantly amazed by the numerous leadership lessons he derives from historical figures. Growing up, Roshan constantly read biographies of great achievers like Sir Isaac Newton and others. He learnt so much and hopes his writing will inspire others that follow.