Leadership Excellence: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Don’t look back in anger. Leaders (and potential leaders) will do well to remember their past and quote it correctly. While not being limited by dogma, they might be wise to acknowledge the body of work that has proceeded them.
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
While this quotation can be traced to at least the 12th century and is often attributed to Bernard of Chartres (in Latin, nanos gigantum humeris insidentes), its most familiar expression is by Sir Isaac Newton. It is found in his 1676 in a letter to Robert Hooke. Sir Isaac Newton used this expression with respect to his own accomplishments and he accepted that his scientific breakthroughs owned much to those who had gone before him. Despite centuries of scientific progress, Newton’s discoveries and theories continue to influence today’s generation of scientists. Indeed Stephen Hawking’s compilation of works by the greatest minds Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein is entitled On The Shoulders of Giants. The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy, (Running Press 2002).
There is a common misconception among some leaders that you have to do everything all by yourself: you are the leader, you are responsible and it’s all you. This is, in my humble opinion, misleading, dangerous and wrong. Business leaders operating within the new economy are often quick to dismiss the received wisdom and practices of an analogue age. Every generation likes to challenge the views, conventions and behaviour of the previous one, but we appear to be experiencing a particularly profound generational shift within the world of business.
Leaders have to understand that they have a very talented team around them and it’s only the collective whole of the team that can result in a win, not any one individual effort. The smart business leader also knows when to borrow from the past and to recognise that despite the almost limitless possibilities of a digital age, the core business principles and practices, developed and codified by earlier generations of business leaders and theorists, are just as relevant as they have ever been. Google Scholar has adopted the motto, Stand on the shoulders of giants.
In the great book What’s Next, Gen X, Tamara Erickson describes how,
Today’s businesses are facing new, unpredictable challenges. What we’ve thought of as leadership skills – setting direction, having the answers, controlling performance, running a tight ship – are less relevant in an environment of constant change. Increasingly, leadership is about creating a context for innovation and inclusion in the face of ambiguity and the unexpected.
Not only should this resonant for leaders and potential leaders, it asks some fundmental questions. Warren Bennis is an American scholar, organisational consultant and author who is widely regarded as the pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership. Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at USC. My favourite two quotations are:
1. Three words leaders have trouble dealing with:‘I don’t know.’
Good leadership will often start with questions whose answer is: I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.
2. None of us is as smart as all of us.
I think that both these quotations have the quality of If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Sir Isaac’s wisdom is in challenging us to remember and use the nuggets of those who came before us; Professor Bennis’ words invites us to use the people around you. The smart business leader also knows when to borrow from the past. They recognise that despite the almost limitless possibilities of a digital age, the core business principles and practices, developed and codified by earlier generations of business leaders and theorists, are just as relevant as they have ever been. Indeed if too much ego or too little discipline prevents us from showing we care about those with whom we work, we are taking up room where giants are needed.
If you ever forget the importance of this nugget (and you live in the UK), the £2 coin bears the inscription STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS on its edge. The challenge for all of is to find those shoulders to lift others up to see more, and to be all they can be. If we don’t invest time in knowing the needs, values, and passions of those we lead, we by omission invalidate their real worth. Great Leaders in my opinion need to:
- Develop new leaders, not followers.
- Will invest in management training and development.
- Learn from best practice and develop new strategies.
- Be humble enough to stand on the shoulders of business giants.
Using Newton’s principle of standing upon those broad shoulders, perhaps we should look to Aristotle. He was the first genuine scientist in history and every scientist is in his debt. Aristotle writings cover many subjects including: physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy. Aristotle is often quoted as saying:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
The sentiment certainly sounds great, but the trouble is that he did not say it. These words were actually written by Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. After quoting a phrase from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions), Durant sums it up this way…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit. This is an example of the way that provocative words tend to gravitate toward famous mouths. As the great quote-sleuth Ralph Keyes says, clever lines … routinely travel from obscure mouths to prominent ones.