For some, strategic thinking is an inherent trait that spells early successes while playing board games and on the playground—and later, can lead to military victories, championship titles, and congressional seats. For the rest of us, here are a few strategies to help you maneuver your way to the top (without resorting to dirty tricks).
1. They never stop learning.
The strategic thinker isn’t just someone with a laser-focused, goal-oriented sense of purpose. He or she is also one with an appetite for knowledge. Take Leonardo da Vinci, who not only had a lot of wide-ranging obsessions—flight, the human body, civil engineering, geometry, and painting, just to name a few—but also the kind of shrewd thinking necessary for breakthroughs. Leonardo’s ability to think practically about how to achieve things as seemingly far-fetched as human flight paved the way for his inventions and ideas the world still marvels at today.
2. They are decisive.
Being a swift and confident decision maker isn’t easy, but it’s what wins battles—of both the figurative and literal kind. Alexander the Great’s long-term success against a variety of opponents has been attributed to his ability to adapt, innovate, and most principally, make decisions under pressure. His ability to make the right calls at the right time allowed Alexander the Great to become one of the best-known rulers and military leaders in history, despite his early death at age 32.
3. They identify problems—and find solutions.
The name Margaret Knight might not be familiar to you, but she’s among the most well regarded inventors of the 19th century. In the mid-1850s, when Knight was only 12 years old, she witnessed a machine malfunction at a cotton mill that resulted in the injury of a worker. Seeing a problem that needed fixing, Knight invented a wildly successful protective cover for the machine. She never got credit for her innovation, however, because she was too young to apply for a patent.
4. They don’t take no for an answer.
Decades later, Knight invented a machine that made the flat-bottomed paper bags we still see today. When she went to file the patent, Knight discovered that a man named Charles Annan had stolen her idea. Knight took Annan to court and won, therein finally getting the credit and recognition she deserved. She would go on to file another 20-some patents in her lifetime.
5. They focus.
The thing about crafting strategies is, well, they take time to craft and execute. From Isaac Newton to Michelangelo to Marie Curie (and countless others), many of the great thinkers in history were known for their ability to lock in on a project and concentrate, often to the detriment of their lives outside of work. We don’t suggest taking it to that extreme, but knowing how to keep your eyes on the prize (and not on your phone, the television, or your daydreams) is key to honing your strategic genius.
6. They take risks.
One of the most enduring images in sports from the last 25 years is of United States gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi carrying athlete Kerri Strug after she injured her ankle in the 1996 Olympic games. The events leading up to this moment were nothing short of epic: The team needed a strong showing on the vault in order to come out on top, and it was up to Strug, the team’s strongest and final vaulter, to solidify their win. However, Strug injured her ankle during a difficult dismount on her first vault. While the Team U.S.A. coaches weren’t sure whether the young athlete even needed to perform a second time in order to clinch the gold, Károlyi encouraged her to go for it—taking a risk that would become one of the most-watched moments in sports history. Of course, Strug nailed her landing. While it turned out that the U.S. didn’t need her second vault to win after all, Károlyi’s gamble paid off in hundreds of thousands of replays.
7. They know how to prioritize.
Take Benjamin Franklin. The founding father, inventor, diplomat, and writer famously strived to maintain both a set of virtues and a routine meant to preserve order and increase his daily efficiency. These goals and frameworks helped Franklin to stay productive on a daily basis, and he rode the fruits of his labor all the way to the history books and the bank (he was all about the Benjamins, baby).
8. They think creatively.
To master the rules of a game takes a great feat of strategic thinking, but to change the playing field altogether requires a show of true brilliance. In 1990, former baseball player Billy Beane was hired by the Oakland Athletics as a scout, and he, along with General Manager Sandy Alderson, went on to change the game of baseball forever. Beane, Alderson, and their team used statistical analysis to create a winning, cost-effective team. Under their leadership, the A’s won games and championships, and showed the world a new way to play the game.
9. They’re mentally nimble.
You gotta stay quick to stay on top, and Julius Caesar knew this better than anyone. The general-turned-dictator expanded the Roman Empire with his quick wits in battle—and behind the scenes—developing strategies that would lead to his successful dominance. Caesar knew how to play the long and short games, illustrating a strategic agility that serves as a testament to his triumphs.
10. They anticipate.
Strategic geniuses don’t play just one move ahead, but many. Nineteenth century chess master and prodigy Paul Morphy was known for having an incredible memory and being able to assess a board in play in a way that mentally opened up every possible strategic option. This ability to visualize future outcomes in order to gain an advantage might not be something just anyone can grasp, but the general idea is one worth internalizing: Thinking beyond the current situation is your best shot at coming out the victor.
11. They know how to persevere.
Thomas Edison was a total failure. He had some spectacular missteps among his 1,093 patents, including a tinfoil phonograph, a talking doll, and the idea to make everything (including cabinets and pianos) out of concrete. It also took a reported 10,000 attempts to nail the light bulb. You’d think after the 9,000th failure he might’ve run out of different approaches, but, strategic thinker that he was, Edison just kept drawing up attack plans.
Bobby Fischer’s focus and determination helped him become the youngest chess Grandmaster in history at age 15. But his genius also led to his unraveling. Watch Fischer’s epic showdown with Soviet Grandmaster Boris Spassky on the big screen in Pawn Sacrifice, in theaters September 16. Will Fischer crack under the pressure?