Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is one of those historical figures that people think they know more about than they really do.
If you were to investigate scholarly lists of the smartest people throughout history, you’d very likely see some similar names such as Einstein, Descartes, da Vinci, Archimedes, and Solomon. But it seems that in the I.Q hall of fame, there is one person whose brain power not only unlocked many mysteries, but completely reshaped the worldview of his contemporaries and every generation since. One biographer credits this person with discovering “more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after.” Pretty impressive résumé if you ask me.
Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is one of those historical figures that people think they know more about than they really do. Most associate Newton with a falling apple and the discovery of gravity, neither of which is completely accurate. He was much more than just a smart person. His accomplishments are far reaching and should be inspiring to anyone involved with business and innovation.
In the fall of 1680 a comet appeared over the skies of England. Newton and only a few others noticed. It then disappeared behind the sun. In December that same year another, brighter comet appeared in the same skies. Newton was one of the only people to assert that it was the same comet as before, making an orbit around the sun. By meticulously recording the comet’s trek, and by applying theories about time and space he had developed over the prior two decades, Newton proved mathematically that the comet was indeed pulled around the sun by an unseen force that he eventually called gravity. This insight led to his masterpiece Principia (1687) in which he boldly asserted new “laws” of motion that govern the universe. These laws set the foundation for new forms of scientific discovery and are today employed in anything designed to move or be moved; from cars and spaceships to spray paint and indoor plumbing.
The key to Newton’s profound contribution to human existence was not just in his brilliance; it was also in his behavior. Newton was a keen observer, and had amazing determination to solve complex problems. Let’s analyze these aspects as they apply to business leadership.
n Observation. Newton’s genius arose from observing national phenomenon such as light, planetary movement and objects in motion. He questioned everything – how it works, why it behaves a certain way, how it impacts other things – in order to determine core truths. In today’s complex business world, it’s easy to get distracted from real problems or real market dynamics. Managers often don’t have time to observe things first hand – so they ask others to give reports. Instead of talking to customers or employees directly, they rely on surveys and anecdotal inputs. Direct observation is vital to leadership because it gives you an unfiltered look at what’s really happening as opposed to what’s supposed to happen. Can you truly know how to improve a product without seeing how it’s made and used? Can you really understand how business is done in another country without ever being there? Can you fairly address an employee’s complaints without seeing what they actually do in their job? Most managers can’t justify blocking time on their calendars for direct observation. But without it, they fall victim to educated guesses disguised as market realities.
n Determination. This is the real key to Newton’s place in history. For millennia, philosophers theorized about what caused objects to fall from the sky to the ground. Newton was not content with theory; he was determined to find the answer through mathematics and logic. When existing mathematical models failed under the complexity of the problem, he didn’t give up. Instead, he created a new branch of mathematics – calculus – as a tool to help him explain various facets of force and motion, which led to his explanation of gravity. Newton never gave up, even on problems that no other human had ever attempted to solve. What would your organization be like if you, as a leader, never gave up trying to solve problems? What could you accomplish if the words “that’s impossible” were forbidden in your corporate culture? In my experience, corporate determination begins at the top and becomes a norm that is daily reinforced by the senior executives. Too often it seems that employees are more willing than their managers to see problems fully resolved. What a shame. A great leader senses when people are losing focus to solve problems and personally intervenes with energy and insight. If there is a Newtonian type law here, it’s that corporate determination cannot be delegated. Think about that the next time your team is struggling with a tough issue.
Newton didn’t set out to change the world, but he did. It’s too simplistic to say that Newton saw a comet in 1680 and as a result, I can now fly on an airplane to anywhere in the world. But there is a real connection between Newton and most of the things I use every day to live and work. Newton’s influence on history wasn’t through military or political means. He impacted humanity through observation and determination.
He used his eyes and his hands just as much as he used his brain. If your organization is becoming complacent, employ some Newtonian attitude. It can help you and your organization act a whole lot smarter.