Qualities of a superlative leader – Intelligence part 2

GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689Born in the village of Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England, in 1643, the only son of prosperous farmer Isaac Newton, this baby of the same name was premature, tiny, weak, and not expected to live.

But he did. His father had died three months before he was born. His mother, Hannah Ayscough Newton, remarried when Isaac was three to a well-to-do minister named Barnabas Smith. Hannah went to live with the Reverend Smith leaving her son with his maternal grandmother.

The experience indelibly left Isaac with a feeling of insecurity which would manifest itself furiously later in life. At the age of twelve, Hannah returned, the Reverend Smith having gone to his eternal reward leaving three more children. Isaac had been attending the King’s School in Grantham where he lodged with the local apothecary. It was there that Isaac developed a fascination with chemistry.

But Mother Hannah took him out of school and tried to make him a farmer. But he found it boring and performed badly so she had the good sense to send him back to King’s School. Isaac’s uncle, a graduate of Cambridge’s Trinity College, persuaded Isaac’s mother to enroll him there.

So, there he went, joining the student body in 1661, where he paid his way in a work-study program, waiting on tables and cleaning the rooms of wealthy students. He joined the college just as the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century was gaining significant momentum and influence in England and Europe. It was there that he began reading the works of Copernicus, Kepler, and philosopher Rene’ DesCartes. Their line of thinking ran counter to what he was being taught at Cambridge so he actually engaged in a dual track of study, keeping a separate set of notes he called “Certain Philosophical Questions.”

He graduated with no particular distinctions or honors, but with scores good enough to win the title of “Scholar” and a scholarship for four more years of study. But then the Great Plague swept through and the College was forced to close. He was sent home where he studied on his own. In the 18 months that followed he conceived the method of infinitesimal calculus, set foundations for his theory of light and color, and gained significant insight into the laws of planetary motion—insights that eventually led to the publication of his Principia in 1687. Legend has it that, at this time, Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple.

While the legend that says he developed his theory of gravity because he was hit on the head by an apple that fell from the tree under which he sat, it probably did not happen precisely in that manner. But who’s to say for sure? We do know that he put two and two together and came up with 4 and lots more.

Not without personality flaws and plagued by the insecurity of having been abandoned as a child, he defended his work and his ideas vigorously, often at the expense of relationships. Nonetheless, we can assuredly say that Sir Isaac Newton was a man of intelligence.

In the previous post I discussed the first four traits of intelligence. Now, using Sir Isaac as the reference, I want to discuss the next four.

5. Ability to catch on. You know the descriptor “clueless,” used to describe someone who just cannot figure out what’s going on. Intelligent people aren’t. A leader cannot afford to be clueless. S/he must be smart enough to catch on. It is an ability to see into a situation and discern the dynamics at play, understand and evaluate the actions and intentions of others, and know how things work. Without it, you risk being played by unscrupulous associates, risk misunderstanding the words and actions of just about everyone, and risk missing opportunities or sensing threats that are subtle yet significant.

6. Ability to think abstractly. Abstract thinkers tend to be quite good at math and science, but this is not hard and fast. Many artistic types are not particularly good at math but are excellent abstract thinkers. Newton was an outstanding abstract thinker. Abstract thinkers are good problem solvers; they can take generalizations and concepts and formulate concrete responses from them.

7. Ability to think concretely. Concrete thinking and abstract thinking are complementary not contradictory. Intelligent leaders can think and work in both dimensions and in both directions. They can take concrete situations and extract from them abstract principles which they can then apply practically somewhere else. They can take abstract concepts and make practical application of them in real life.

8. Ability to solve problems. Abstract, conceptual understanding and practical, concrete reasoning is a powerful combination. All of leadership, like every transaction in life, is a problem-solving game. People look to leaders for answers because they have questions, face dilemmas, and encounter challenges. They need to be able to offer solutions. Peter Drucker once said that those who can solve problems are moving towards leadership, those who cannot are moving away from it.

On Thursday I will complete this quality with the final four traits of intelligence. See you then.