Think Like Leonardo

Oct. 12, 2015
Forget moving like Jagger. The key to unlocking your inner genius is to think like da Vinci. Easy, right? Here are seven principles to help.

Leonardo da Vinci was arguably the greatest thinker of all times—genius demonstrated on so many levels, with an astounding number of inventions and innovative concepts credited to him. So what better way to think like a genius than to think like da Vinci?

Michael Gelb, an author and public speaker focused on creativity and innovation, contends that there are exactly seven principles to capturing your inner da Vinci. He presented those key concepts to help kick off the Emerson Global Users Exchange going on this week in Denver.

But if you really want to think like Leonardo da Vinci, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your Italian. So here they are, the seven principles to thinking like a genius:

  1. Curiositá
  2. Dimonstrazione
  3. Sensazione
  4. Sfumato
  5. Arte/Scienza
  6. Corporalitá
  7. Connessione

And now, in case you didn’t quite catch all of that…


Gelb thinks it’s no coincidence that children are not only passionately curious, but also have vivid imaginations and plenty of energy. He encourages people to embrace their curiosity to begin thinking more like da Vinci.

“Leonardo da Vinci was probably the most curious person who ever lived,” Gelb said. “What was he curious about? Everything.”

Part of that concept is also letting your intuition guide you, a trait found among the most effective leaders. “Access your curiositá at the deepest level,” Gelb encouraged.


Da Vinci advised his own students to demonstrate their ideas in their own experience. Gelb advises the same. Just as da Vinci did, try looking at everything from at least three different angles.

Unlike da Vinci’s day, when so much scholarly writing was done in Latin, making information less accessible to those outside nobility, the challenge to independent thinking today is just the opposite—too much information.

It’s important to step away from all the devices and spend time just thinking about ideas. Dissect those ideas from a variety of angles.


Da Vinci said that the five senses are the ministers of the soul. “He trained his sensory awareness like an Olympic athlete trains their body for competition,” Gelb said.

Sensazione’s a critical edge in your business,” he added, talking about the need to become a better listener but also really pay attention to the body language and everything else around you. “The Italians understand this. They have la dolce vita.”

Gelb urged conference attendees to “consciously enjoy and appreciate beauty.” He even helped us along by inviting his beautiful wife and company COO (chief opera officer) onto the stage to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical Carousel for us, which she did brilliantly.

“There are two ways to live your life,” Gelb said. “One like nothing is a miracle, and the other like everything is a miracle.” He advocates the latter.

Everything’s going up in smoke

Or at least being prepared for everything to go up in smoke, like the hazy, mysterious quality of da Vinci’s paintings. It’s about “the importance of smiling in the face of the unknown,” Gelb said, like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which he called “the western embodiment of the ancient symbol of yin and yang.”

The “nova” embedded in the word “innovation” means new, he pointed out. “You have to give up what you thought you knew.”

With industries so tied to what has always worked for them before, this can be difficult. But companies need to be able to shift between the analytical business practices and the “receptive, intuitive, open, playful and childlike mode,” Gelb said.


The Mona Lisa is a master work of art, Gelb said, but it’s also a work of science; a masterpiece of proportionality. Da Vinci showed a strong correlation between art and science—embodying a theory that those interested in art also make better scientists.

More than theory, actually, a study from Michigan State University has shown the correlation. Scientists at the National Academy of Sciences were 1.7 times more likely to have a hobby in arts and crafts than general scientists; scientists from the Royal Society were 1.8 time more likely; and Nobel laureates were a considerable 2.8 times more likely. “It’s not a coincidence that Einstein’s greatest passion was playing the violin,” Gelb commented.

So as companies in industry sponsor STEM programs and think about what’s an essential part of the engineering curriculum, they might consider how to raise the level of STEM with STEAM, Gelb urged, talking about science, technology, engineering, art and math.

Balance of body and mind

Corporalitá is the balance of body and mind. Da Vinci, Gelb noted, was renowned as the strongest man in Florence. He believed in eating a healthy, wholesome diet of the freshest food you could find, and eating in a pleasant atmosphere with people you like to spend time with.

Da Vinci worked hard, but he also knew when to step away from his work, purportedly telling a supervisor, “Men of genius sometimes work best when they work least.”

“Leonardo understood that you have to shift into that receptive mode,” Gelb said. “You need the time of sleep for the neurotransmitters to consolidate to help you get the new idea. If you can sleep on it, you’re going to tend to make better, wiser decisions. It is the yin to our yang of analysis.”


Da Vinci knew that everything connected to everything else. Everything is a connection of systems. “Geniuses make connections that other people don’t see,” Gelb said.

The theme of this year’s Emerson Exchange is “Elevate Your Expertise.” Incorporating these ideas into your day-to-day thinking about capturing the genius of Leonardo da Vinci can go a long way to raising that elevation level. For a deeper dive into all of these concepts, read Gelb’s book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day.

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