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Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Leadership

By December 2, 2022December 10th, 2022No Comments
image of Newton's Cradle

Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion are well known, but if you don’t recognize how Newton’s laws have leadership implications, consider the following change of wording:

  1. A stagnate organization will remain stagnate if there is no tension within it.
  2. The larger the organization, the greater the tension must be for the organization to grow at an increased rate.
  3. For every action taken by an organization there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Newton’s first law recognizes the need for tension within an organization if it is to improve over time. As I state on page 83 in Why It Matters, “To avoid stagnation, leaders take advantage of Newton’s first law of motion and apply force to ensure an organization continues to move, advance, and improve. … Chris Lofgren told the students, ‘Leadership is about creating a safe place for tensions to exist.’

In Leadership Without Easy Answers, Heifetz notes a key responsibility of a leader is regulating the level of tension and stress within the organization. He observes that ‘eliminating the stress altogether eliminates the impetus for adaptive work. The strategic risk is to maintain a level of tension that mobilizes people.’”

Newton’s second law shines a light on the challenges leaders of large organizations face. At one time, I was on the boards of directors for Eastman Chemical Company, J. B. Hunt Transport Services, Motorola, and Russell Corporation. When I realized that the sum of the increases in revenue for the four corporations didn’t come close to equaling the increase in revenues the stock market expected from Walmart, I understood much better the pressure Mike Duke, Walmart’s CEO, must be under. Increasing revenues by 7% from a base of $10 million is one thing, but quite another to increase revenues by 7% from a base of $1 billion.

Newton’s first and second laws are understood much better by leaders than the third law. A corollary to Newton’s third law is the law of unintended consequences. On page 273 of Why It Matters, in discussing the 10th Key to an A in leadership, anticipation, I noted, “Judith McKenna reminded the students they need to look farther than one step ahead; they should anticipate the second bounce of the ball, the result of the result. Every action causes a reaction. What’ll be the reaction to a leader’s action? Anticipate!”

Newton’s third law supports the adage that every solution to a problem creates a new problem. The impact the transfer portal and name, image, and likeness have had on intercollegiate athletics points to the failure of the NCAA to consider Newton’s third law. As soon as “pay for play” was legitimized, why was anyone surprised that universities with the wealthiest boosters would have a recruiting advantage over universities without such boosters?

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