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Gustin Partners | April 17, 2014 |

Leadership as a Work of Art

By Thornton May
Futurist, Senior Advisor with GP, Executive Director & Dean - IT Leadership Academy

Every day the artist wakes up and has a choice to make. They and their muse decide what they will paint, draw, sculpt, or photograph today.  Similarly, every day leaders wake up and decide who they will lead, where they will lead and how they will lead today. Having just returned from Florence, Italy where I was doing research on “Renaissance Lessons for Modern Managers” I am supremely sensitized to how zeitgeist and personality impacts artistic, political and leadership choices. Ongoing survey research at multiple universities seems to indicate that many contemporary leaders are “running on automatic” and do not realize the degree of agency [i.e., the broad array of choices available to them] regarding how, who and where they lead.

Go Big or Go Home
In 1298 the Wool Guild [the true source of economic  power in Renaissance Florence]  working with/through the Signory [Republican government] gave architects the following design brief for what was to become Il Duomo di Firenze [the Cathedral of Florence]:

"to raise the loftiest, most sumptuous, and most magnificent pile that human invention could devise,
or human labour execute."

You don’t see KPI’s [Key Performance Indicators] like this much anymore. Aspiring toward greatness is one thing. Achieving it quite another. It took the fractious Florentines ~140 years to finish the project.

Cheryl Smith, formerly CIO at Keyspan, Mckesson, and WestJet is a formidable executive. She counsels those who would lead that one of the key tasks of a leader is to a] determine what problem is to be solved. Ms Smith subscribes to the Renaissance concept that “Fortune favors the bold” ["Audentes fortuna iuvat“ ]; that unless greatness is the sought for end result, greatness will never be achieved.

She makes this understandable recounting the metaphor of the LION, CHIPMUNK, and ANTELOPE. Leaders [i.e., Lions] must focus on large changes [i.e., antelopes].  Lions cannot hunt chipmunks [i.e., small changes]; they will starve to death.  They must hunt antelopes to stay alive.  Leaders define the antelopes [i.e., problems] and don’t get distracted by the chipmunks.

Matteo Renzi, until recently the mayor of Florence and presently the youngest-ever Italian prime minister [Sixty-three governments in sixty-eight years, with twenty-seven different Prime Ministers] is a big believer of aiming high. When he went to Parliament to get his vote of confidence, he promised a major reform every month -New election rules, Labor reform, and an overhaul of the tax system. Placed in historical context, prime minister Renzi is promising to deliver in three months reforms that Italians have been waiting 30 years for.

Leadership shares similarities not just with artists and art but also in the geographic repositories of that art – museums. Like museums, leadership is good when it’s beautiful [i.e., optics, the way things look], better when it’s functional, and best when it’s malleable.

Michelangelo, while something of a diva did understand human nature. Guides at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence [the final resting place of THE David] delight in recounting the probably apocryphal story of the “man who didn’t like the statue’s nose.” Every morning, while working on the gigantic slab of marble outside the Palazzo della Signoria [the seat of civic government in Florence] Michelangelo would be confronted by an old man who while walking past would yell up to Michelangelo, “the nose on your David is too big. It is terrible.” This went on for months. Finally Michelangelo could stand it no longer. One day the sculptor hid marble fragments in his hand. When the old man commented on the nose Michelangelo went over to the errant appendage and made as if he was making modifications – all the while showering the aged critic with shards of marble.  He finally stopped and inquired, “What about the nose now, is it better?” ”Better,” replied the old man.” In reality Michelangelo had changed nothing but had succeeded in appeasing a critic. The leadership lesson here: if you are sure of what you are doing, just do it – but be aware of the sensitivities of others.


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