Are You a Polymath Leader in the Making?

The concept of a Polymath Leader is intriguing and increasingly relevant in our complex business landscape.

Such leaders aren’t just experts in one domain; they possess knowledge across multiple areas, weaving a rich tapestry of understanding and insight.

As management training continues to evolve, there’s a growing emphasis on polymathic thinking. This article will explore the attributes of a Polymath Leader and provide insights into how one can nurture these qualities to lead more effectively and innovatively.


Unpacking the Polymath Definition

Our guide begins with a polymath definition, as well as a more in-depth look into what a polymath leader looks like and what distinguishes them from other types of leaders.

What is a Polymath?

A polymath is an inquisitive individual committed to continuous learning in a variety of domains. Polymathy isn’t just about gaining new knowledge in various subjects but also applying that knowledge in different scenarios and settings.

There are genetic and non-genetic components to being a polymath.

On the genetic end, polymaths tend to have a stronger-than-average connection – via the corpus callosum, the white matter that connects the two sides of the brain – between the right hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for emotional responses, and the left hemisphere, which is responsible for logical thought.

On the non-genetic end, polymathy also depends on one’s responses to environmental stimuli. The dual nature of polymathy indicates that even if someone is born without an extra strong connection between the right and left brain hemispheres, it’s still possible for them to develop polymath personality traits and characteristics.

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Polymath Meaning: Beyond the Basics

Polymaths have unique advantages over other individuals, especially in business settings. The following are some of the primary reasons why one might want to become a polymath:

  • More innovative thinking: The more you know, particularly about a wide range of topics, the easier it is to think outside of the box and be more creative.
  • Develop transferable skills: As you gain more knowledge and find opportunities to apply it, you’ll develop new skills that can transfer to other aspects of your job and help you qualify for positions that you wouldn’t have been able to fill otherwise.
  • Strengthen learning skills: A commitment to learning doesn’t just give you more knowledge. It also helps you strengthen your ability to learn new information, meaning you can become a more efficient learner the more you practice (which can help you further upskill and become better at your job).
  • Become a better teacher/leader: Polymaths have the potential to be great leaders, especially if they take the time to share what they’ve learned with those they manage or supervise. Their extensive knowledge helps them to coach others and develop stronger teams overall.

If you’re a team leader and looking for a boost in getting it right, consider diving into our team leadership training.

Polymath vs Specialist

The opposite of a polymath is a specialist – someone who has a great deal of knowledge in one particular subject, be it mathematics, marketing, or molecular biology.

Some believe that the best way to excel and be an effective leader is to specialise in one area. While there are benefits to this approach, there are also downsides, especially in the current climate.

For example, automation is on the rise worldwide, and experts estimate that in about 60 per cent of fields, at least a third of activities could potentially be automated. Furthermore, a significant percentage of workers (around 14 per cent, according to some estimates) may need to change jobs at some point in their careers (because their position was automated, because it was made obsolete, etc.).

Polymaths have an advantage in these kinds of situations because their expansive knowledge and skill sets enable them to pivot and make career changes more easily than those who have specialised in only one thing.


Recognising Polymath Personality Traits

Now that we’ve covered a basic polymath meaning, let’s talk about how to recognise a polymath. Polymaths have unique personality traits that separate them from others, including those shared in the next section.

Characteristics of a True Polymath

Here are five common characteristics you’ll see among nearly all polymaths:

  • Wide range of interests: Polymaths are generally interested in a variety of topics, from art to the sciences to trades like electrical work and plumbing.
  • Extreme curiosity: Polymaths aren’t just mildly interested in these various subjects. They have a deep curiosity and constantly want to know “why?” and “how?”
  • Scepticism toward conventionality: Polymaths aren’t willing to accept simple answers. They are highly sceptical toward conventional wisdom and answers and want to dig deeper and look for alternative answers/solutions.
  • Self-motivated learner: You don’t have to bribe a polymath to learn new things. They are self-motivated learners who are always eager to study something new.
  • Associative thinker: Associative thinking involves unconsciously combining two or more concepts to create a new one. Polymaths are excellent associative thinkers, and this trait helps them develop new and creative ideas.

Polymaths are also humble. They acknowledge that they don’t know everything, and they’re always on a journey to learn more and become better.

How to Spot a Polymath in Your Team

Is there anyone on your team who seems to possess all of the traits listed above? Perhaps it’s you?

If you’re unsure of whether or not you or someone else is a polymath, here are some questions that can provide clarification:

  • Do you or they know a lot about many different subjects?
  • Are you or they consistently striving to learn more about a myriad of topics?
  • Do you or they rarely accept a simple answer (especially if that answer is “no” without any additional explanation)?
  • Do you or they ask a lot of follow-up questions?
  • Are you or they prone to deep concentration (so much so that you or they forget about the rest of the world)?

If you can say “yes” to most or all of those questions, there’s a good chance you or someone else on your team is a polymath.

If you manage a team and are looking for some inspiration to keep them engaged and motivated check out these team building problem-solving activities.


Delving into Famous Polymath Examples

Plenty of polymaths have existed throughout history and made incredible contributions to the world around them – we study many of them in textbooks today.

This section delves into famous polymath examples, both historical and modern.

Historical Figures with Polymath Brilliance

The following are some historical figures who fit the polymath mould and have been experts in a range of subjects:

  • Hypatia of Alexandria (Philosopher, mathematician, astronomer)
  • Leonardo Da Vinci (Painter, writer, musician, anatomist, sculptor, inventor, engineer, architect, city planner, botanist, poet, philosopher)
  • Nicolaus Copernicus (Mathematician, physicist, astronomer, economist, clergyman, diplomat, governor, jurist)
  • Galileo Galilei (Astronomer, physicist, mathematician, engineer, philosopher)
  • Rene Descartes (Mathematician, philosopher, physicist)
  • Isaac Newton (Alchemist, physicist, inventor, theologian, mathematician)
  • Thomas Jefferson (Archaeologist, architect, inventor, politician, palaeontologist)
  • Jose Eschegaray (Playwright, mathematician, politician, writer)
  • Ernesto Sabato (Novelist, painter, physicist)

Modern-Day Polymaths and Their Impact

Of course, there have been numerous polymaths throughout history, but there are also many current ones worth knowing of, including these individuals:

  • Elon Musk (Inventor, entrepreneur, physicist, economist)
  • Natalie Portman (Actress, psychologist, dancer, producer, director, writer)
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger (Actor, politician, entrepreneur)
  • Felicia Day (Mathematician, musician, actress, entrepreneur)
  • Dolph Lundgren (Actor, engineer, polyglot)
  • Jonny Kim (Navy SEAL, astronaut, doctor, pilot, mathematician)
  • Scott Young (Writer, programmer, polyglot)
  • Brian May (Musician, astrophysicist, activist, guitar builder)

Of course, this list and the list in the previous section feature just a small sample of all the polymaths that have existed in the past and present.

Steps on How to Become a Polymath

Many polymaths are born, but they are also made – it also takes work for those born with polymath personality characteristics to become true polymaths.

Whether you were born with certain traits or not, it’s certainly possible to learn how to be a polymath with practice, preparation, and commitment. Listed below are some specific tips and practices one can use and implement to cultivate polymath attributes:



Acknowledge That You Don’t Know It All

Remember, humility is critical to becoming a polymath. You can’t learn more if you’re convinced you already know everything about a particular subject.

It doesn’t matter how much studying you’ve done, how many books you’ve read or the number of podcasts you’ve listened to – there’s always room to learn more.

Start by acknowledging that you don’t know it all. You might even want to brainstorm a list of topics that you know more about and use that as a jumping-off point.



Cultivate New Passions and Interests

Don’t let yourself get caught in a rut. Strive to cultivate new passions and interests consistently.

You can use the list you made of topics you want to learn about to decide what you want to focus on first, or you can create a separate list of hobbies and subjects you’ve always been curious about – it could be knitting, gardening, economics, organic chemistry, or anything in between.

Be willing to step outside your comfort zone, too. Resist the urge to stick to subjects and skills with which you’re already familiar.

For example, if you’re already a skilled sewer, it might not be much of a stretch to branch out into embroidery. It would be a stretch to explore the world of digital marketing or investing, though.



Set Clear Goals

It’s easier to make progress toward gaining more knowledge and developing new skills when you set goals. When setting goals, use a formula like the SMART formula to increase your chances of achieving them.

SMART goals meet the following criteria:

  • Specific: Don’t just say you want to learn more about a particular subject. Clarify what it means to “learn more,” whether that’s being able to pass a test, earn a license or certification, etc.
  • Measurable: Your goal should be measurable, meaning you can track how close you are to achieving it. For example, you can measure whether or not you’ve earned a license or earned a specific score on an exam.
  • Attainable: Goals should stretch you, but they shouldn’t be so lofty that they feel impossible to accomplish.
  • Relevant: Your goals should be relevant to your interests, passions, career, etc.
  • Time-Based: Your goal should have a clear deadline. For example, you might want to earn a certification within the next six months.

Don’t be afraid to break your large goals into smaller ones as well. For example, suppose you want to become a certified fitness trainer. In that case, you might set smaller goals regarding the number of chapters you read in a textbook each week so you’re prepared for each test associated with earning that certification.

Practice, Practice, Practice

You have to put in the work if you want to become a polymath. In this case, “the work” often involves reading, practising skills, and trying new things.

It doesn’t matter how busy you are. You still need to make time to work toward your goals and develop your talents and abilities.


Forget About Perfection

Remember that becoming a polymath doesn’t mean being perfect at something or knowing all the answers. It means that you remain curious and committed to the practice of learning something new or finding new solutions to old problems.

Try not to get frustrated when you make mistakes or don’t know how something works. Forget about perfection, and keep in mind that part of being a polymath is being a lifelong learner – not a lifelong expert.

Don’t Be Afraid to Learn and Unlearn

The adage “the more you learn, the less you know” is very applicable to polymaths (and those who are striving to become polymaths). As you continue to read, study, and learn about different subjects, you’ll come across conflicting information.

Don’t get frustrated or panic when that happens. That’s part of the learning process. You may think that something works one way and then, upon further studying, find that the opposite is actually true – and that’s okay!

You haven’t failed because you’ve changed your mind about a particular topic. In fact, that’s a good thing. It means you’ve stayed curious, have maintained your commitment to learning, and have remained open-minded.

Find Mentors

Polymaths are known for being auto-didacts (self-taught individuals). However, that doesn’t mean you have to learn everything on your own.

Look for mentors who can help you gain new skills and learn new perspectives. They could be colleagues, friends, or people you’ve found online through LinkedIn or a forum dedicated to a particular subject.

In the same way that it’s helpful to learn from multiple sources, it’s also essential to learn from multiple people. For example, if you’ve spent a few months learning from one mentor, it might be time to reach out to someone new and see how their expertise differs.

Ignore Gatekeepers

When you’re looking for mentorship or just looking to connect with others who are as passionate about a subject as you, you will likely run into gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are individuals who want to hoard knowledge and avoid sharing it with others.

Don’t let these people stop you from pursuing an interest or working toward a goal. Ignore them and look for people who are eager to collaborate and share what they know.

Create and Stick to a Schedule

It’ll take a long time to reach your business goals and learn new skills if you only do a little studying or practising here and there. If you want to become a polymath, you need to make learning a consistent part of your routine.

For example, maybe you spend an hour in the morning or evening (or possibly both) studying a specific subject or practising a new skill.

Whatever your schedule is, do your best to stick to it, even on days when you have a lot going on and are tempted to skip researching, practising, etc. When you stay committed, you’ll make progress faster and have an easier time achieving your goals.

Reflect Regularly

Make time for reflection, too.

Set aside time each evening, at the end of the week, etc., to reflect on and review what you’ve learned – this might include writing in a journal or taking an assessment to test your knowledge. Without this time, it’s easy for your brain to become cluttered with all the information you’ve taken in.

Reflection and review allow you to clarify what you understand and what you need to spend more time focusing on moving forward. These periods of reflection will help you ensure you’re always progressing.


Polymath leaders stand out with their broad knowledge and diverse skill sets, inspiring their teams and shaping skill development in others. If you’re on the path to becoming a polymath leader or aspire to be one, this guide has laid the foundation for you to nurture polymath traits and enhance your learning capabilities.

To specifically sharpen your leadership skills, MTD Training offers a specialised management skills course and leadership training programmes. Both designed to elevate your abilities not just as a manager, but so you can be the best leader you can be.

Get in touch today to begin this transformative experience.

Thanks again


Sean McPheat

Managing Director

MTD Training

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Updated on: 7 February, 2024

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