Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” ink drawing is considered a masterpiece in how it blends science and art, a symmetrical yet elegant illustration of the human form. While da Vinci gets the credit, it is well-known that he was inspired by those who came before him (notably the architect Vitruvius) as well as those around him in Milan’s intellectual society in the late 1400s. He was more interested in the pursuit and collaboration than fame. He was an initial “shareware” engineer.
“Conceiving ideas was for Leonardo, as it had been throughout history for most other cross-disciplinary thinkers, a collaborative endeavor,” writes Walter Isaacson in his excellent 2017 biography of da Vinci. “Unlike Michelangelo and some other anguished artists, Leonardo enjoyed being surrounded by friends, companions, students, assistants, fellow courtiers, and thinkers.” The thinkers ranged from mathematicians, architects and engineers to poets and musicians.
Chief executives (anguished or not) can learn from this. I understand there are limitations in drawing direct parallels between what inspired da Vinci 500 years ago and what inspires a CEO today. And yet, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but appreciate the artist’s passion for, as Isaacson writes, “bouncing around thoughts and jointly formulating ideas” with others. CEOs often feel like they need to go it alone or keep to a limited circle of trusted confidants.
What are a few general ideas to draw from da Vinci?
1. Team with diverse people. Research suggests that workplace diversity is good for business. Diversity can extend to the idea of varied skill sets, types of expertise, and personalities. In DaVinci’s court the range was from mathematicians to poets and even “pageant performers.” CEOs can agree that great work environments have a mix of people from more methodical technical experts to creative free spirits. Teamwork does not need to involve like-minded people. As I wrote in a previous article, “smart collaboration” often takes time and a leap of faith among people who bring different elements to projects and initiatives.
2. Find people to challenge you. Because CEOs are at the top, a challenge is finding individuals who will play devil’s advocate and offer contrarian views. Every successful chief executive relies on people who “tell it like it is.” Many take on a coach or outside mentor to provide objective viewpoints. Wherever you find them, seek out people who engage you in thought-provoking conversations and occasionally or frequently disagree with you.
3. Get people together in person. Isaacson writes that da Vinci believed “Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously.” In this digital era, it is easy to gravitate towards email, messaging, and audio and video conferencing. Despite the value of these technologies, there will always be a need for people to be together, face to face, exchanging ideas and gaining inspiration.
4. Read. I am a believer in reading a variety of materials to challenge one’s thinking and broaden the mind. For CEOs this includes leadership and management resources as well as the occasional biography or mystery novel. Whether at work or vacation, I always have books by my side. (It will be interesting to see how younger generations of leaders, for whom “reading” is mostly done digitally, will undertake this activity. Will CEOs 20 years from now lug the hardcover of Leonardo Da Vinci onto an airplane, much less upload it to their phone to scroll through in-flight?)
5. Blend art, science and technology to generate an environment of creativity. My son’s capstone project in 8th grade was building a boxcar with a team of five students. They were tasked with designing a car, testing, innovating and ultimately racing the creation. The assignment also included building a website, designing a car theme and choreographing a dance for their introduction on race day. Through this exercise, the teens learned a great deal about how to team in the business world. They learned to leverage art, science, technology and each other to create. In business, we can get locked in our lanes and struggle to pull in others to create solutions.
Leadership, the cliché goes, is part science and art. For every part of it that is logical and systematized there are aspects that are intuitive and require sheer creativity. Surround yourself with those who inspire you.