One reason for Leonardo da Vinci’s enduring fame is that he epitomized the spirit of the Renaissance Age. Part of the inquisitive, humanistic impetus of his age, Leonardo innovated seamlessly across disciplines. The original “Renaissance Man,” he was a pioneer in art, architecture, mathematics, engineering, biology and other topics.

Walter Isaacson, a thought leader and former journalist, has made it his mission to understand great innovators. He’s written about leading visionaries from Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs; and just published a best-selling book that set out to understand the genius of Leonardo.

We live in a time where innovation happens at warp speed. No matter how far out the future seems to be, new technology brings it closer every day – driverless cars, putting people on Mars are no longer the stuff of science fiction.

It’s times like this when it pays to look backwards at innovators whose reputation has stood the test of time, like Leonardo. To investigate what made them so important and what we can learn from them.


Based on Walter’s recent keynote at SAP Leonardo Live in Chicago, here are five things Leonardo had to say about innovation that are as fresh now, as they were then. Taken together, they make a compelling and fresh new argument for why digital transformation is so important and provide some guidelines to help companies succeed.

Find Patterns: Connect the Dots

Leonardo was a polymath, interested in every subject from hydraulics and anatomy to art and architecture. As Walter explained, what made Leonardo was remarkable was not his widespread pursuits but his ability to see patterns and make connections between these topics.

“He had the ability to make connections that we did not know existed. He was able to see patterns across disciplines. There a lot of people that are smart but they act in silos. Leonardo connected the dots,” said Walter.

For example, when Leonardo wanted to develop a flying machine drew on his knowledge of  art,engineering and science. To build his flying machine, he studied birds’ flight patterns, weight, anatomy and how their muscles worked. But he also drew on his early experience as a theater producer creating props where angels descended from the ceiling.

Innovation is a Team Sport: Diversity is Key

Walter also talked about the importance of diversity — not only in terms of people’s background and lifestyle, but based on their skills.

He described the “geography of diversity” in Florence during the late 1400s as a both varied and tolerant. Walter said, “Leo was born in 1452 and when he went to Florence, there were people from different industries suddenly thrown together in these huge workshops. You have jewelry makers, artisans, cloth makers working, chemists, artists and architects – all working side-by-side to design great buildings. Working together allowed them to suddenly discover the science of perspective.”

This was helped by the fact that Florence brought in people from around the world. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, people came from the East with new mathematic concepts as well as Africa.

Leonardo himself was a misfit – he was illegitimate, left-handed and openly gay. But with the Medici family running Florence he fitted  right in.

Said Walter, “That notion of celebrating difference – not just background or ethnicity or race or gender – but different mindset, skillsets: that’s what made Florence so creative.”

Disruption: Let Your Reach Extend Your Grasp

“If you’re going to be a disrupter, you occasionally need to let your reach extend your grasp,” said Walter. He explained that innovation sometimes depends on challenging yourself and the people around you — and sometimes failing.

“With Leonardo, he wanted to make a flying machine. But you can’t do it. We still don’t have a self-propelled flying machine. Leonardo studied different aspects of birds’ flight extensively and tried to develop flying machines throughout his life. After a while, Leo figured out why it can’t be done based on studies of birds – their anatomy, how wind effects flight and other factors.”

Based on his studies of Leonardo, Steve Jobs and other digital innovators, Walter said, “It’s cool to allow your reach extend your grasp, try something that’s impossible and then discover why it’s impossible. That’s what we do every day in disruptive industries. We sometimes say, ‘I’m willing to fail but let me see why.’”

The Right Talent: Question Everything and Beauty Matters

“Leonardo would say, bring in people who want to know everything they can possible learn about everything that can possibly be known,” said Walter when asked about Leonardo’s advice for what kind of talent we need to fuel business innovation today.

Leonardo wrote questions for himself every day. He was passionately curious about everything.

The best example is the Vitruvian Man, which was beautiful but also a work of scientific exactitude based on Leonardo’s 230 studies of human proportions and mathematical concepts.

Walter said, “Leonardo would think it’s important to find people that understand whether you’re painting a masterpiece, playing a piece of music or doing an equation showing a scientific law — they are all just beautiful ways to paint the glory of nature.”

Culture of Creativity: Critical Mass Matters

To understand why certain times engender massive disruption, Walter said “You need to look at the combinations of innovation at a particular time. Leonardo was born in 1452 after Guttenberg invented the printing press, clothmakers discover they can make paper out of rags, and double-entry accounting is created. All of these innovations create a culture of creativity.”

Likewise in the 1970s, the invention of microchips, personal computers and distributed networks came come together to create the digital revolution.

Walter believes the challenge now is that we have so much data generated by Internet of Things and mobility. With Big Data, it’s hard to make connections. The ability to meet that challenge (and harness the vast amount of information we have available) will give birth to the next wave of innovation.

And like Leonardo, we need to see the patterns in the data.

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