How Great Leaders Grow By Standing On the Shoulders of Giants

Jul 9, 2021 3 min read
How Great Leaders Grow By Standing On the Shoulders of Giants

Bruce Harpham shares insights from leaders in science and politics, and argues that every leader builds on the contributions of others.

Where do leaders learn their skills and find inspiration? Do they work away, locked in an office, until inspiration strikes? It should go without saying that project managers need leadership skills.

To a large degree, leaders are those who build on lessons learned from the past. German philosopher Georg Hegel said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

That’s an excellent warning. Like most generalizations, there are exceptions. Learning from history and those who have gone before you is an indispensable leadership tool.

Great leaders build on the accomplishments of those who came before them. If you lead in business, you must understand the organization’s rhythms, and it’s nature before you assume a leadership role.

When I think of leaders, I include those with ambitions to grow and make greater contributions to the business. If you think leadership is limited to the C-Suite, you will constantly miss opportunities to grow your skills.

In this article, I will share insights from leaders in science and politics. We will see that every leader builds on the contributions of others. You really don’t need to reinvent the wheel. However, you do need to be observant and identify the right opportunities.

Isaac Newton: Creating a Scientific Revolution

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants. – Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke in 1676 (age 34)

Newton’s work on gravity, calculus and other fields permanently changed the world. He also had some unusual interests, such as alchemy and unorthodox religious opinions. But that just makes him more interesting to me!

Newton drew on several insights from the past. From the Crusades, many Europeans learned about algebra, Arabic numbers and other mathematical advances. Without these conceptual tools, it is difficult to imagine Newton building even more sophisticated mathematics.

Newton also actively participated in scientific organizations. From 1703 to 1727, he served as President of the Royal Society, Britain’s pre-eminent scientific organization. His participation in the Society also provided opportunities to learn about new ideas before they reached wide circulation.

Lessons Learned

  1. Seek out peers who are open to discussing new ideas. That feedback is essential to your growth.
  2. Newton was an active member of the Royal Society, a leading professional organization of his time. Professional associations are an important way to grow your skills.

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