Renaissance Man

On Saturday I had an opportunity to visit an exhibit at the High Museum of Art with a collection of pieces by Leonardo da Vinci and some of his contemporaries, titled “The Hand of the Genius”.  This visit was made as a part of the Leadership Academy program I’m in, and both the exhibit and the Leadership Academy event were focused on exploring genius: the exhibit on the genius of Leonardo, and the event on our own individual genius as it relates to our leadership capabilities.

The art exhibit featured not only the work of Leonardo but also of contemporaries and teachers of Leonardo, including works by Leonardo’s mentor, Verrocchio, and by contemporary Giovanni Rustici, whom Leonardo mentored.  The exhibit provided context for Leonardo’s work, dispelling the myth of the solitary genius, slaving away in the dark away from the world churning out works of unparalleled and unprecedented brilliance.

There’s certainly no question that Da Vinci was an unqualified genius and a master of a broad range of artistic and scientific endeavors – a rare talent in any age.  But the exhibit shows how Leonardo grew from student of painting and sculpture, under Verrocchio, into master, and how he influenced and was influenced by other great artists like Rustici,  Donatello, and Michelangelo (ostensibly Leonardo’s rival).  Although best known for his iconic paintings and drawings, the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vetruvian Man (the last of which is included in the exhibition), the exhibit was filled with many lesser-known pieces, many from his notebooks, including numerous horse studies he made in preparation for his planned monumental sculpture, the Sforza Horse, which was never accomplished in Leonardo’s lifetime.

Besides his artistic achievements, both realized and unrealized, Leonardo made enormous contributions to the fields of science.  He was a skilled engineer of siege engines and other devices of war.  His anatomical studies – both of the visible exterior and of internal organs – were the most accurate of his time.  His numerous inventions are at times fantastical and at times prophetic.  Ultimately, Leonardo’s legacy is that of the quintessential genius – a yard stick against which all other great artists, engineers, and inventors are measured.

What this exhibit really did for me, considering the purpose for which I was visiting it, was put all of this in the context of my own life.  Gazing at some of these magnificent works, my mind was first turned to the attention to detail and the marvelous skill and craftsmanship evident in these artistic pieces – both by Leonardo and by others. 

But I was surprised to find my mind turning to a more personal interpretation as I considered my own legacy.  Tomorrow, an introspective on the influence of the Renaissance Man in my own life.

Lateral Leadership

Although the main focus of my blog is writing, I occassionally have cause to write about something a little far afield from that general topic.  This is particularly true when my education is involved.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m currently participating in the Leadership Development academy at the university where I’m working on my MBA.  This is sort of an extra-curricular class – it’s not necessary for graduation, but once enrolled, it’s treated like a class.  On a recent Leadership Academy assignment, I had to create a blog post on some articles I’ve read on leadership.  Since I had to go through the effort to write that, I thought I’d share it here, as well:

Lateral Leadership

I had a bit of trouble, at first, selecting an article to blog about.  At first, I read “The Fantasy Preventing Us from Becoming Better Leaders” by Marshall Goldsmith.  It was about a topic I’m struggling with right now: time management.  But the article didn’t have much meat to sink my teeth into – it was less than a page long.  Then I read “Five Steps to Building Your Personal Leadership Brand” by David Ulrich and Norm Smallwood.  I just took a Brand Management class and one of my big take-aways from that class (and from the diversity conference) was about developing my own personal brand.  But something bothered me about the article: it seemed to be written as if assuming I was already a leader, and needed to refine my style.  But in my own organization, I’m effectively the bottom man on the totem pole, and I lack any formal authority.  Were there leadership articles with advice for people in my situation?

So then I happened on “How to Lead When You’re Not the Boss” (from the Harvard Management Update) and “Exerting Influence Without Authority” by Lauren Keller Johnson.  These two articles were about the concept of “Lateral Leadership”, and were full of good advice on skills and traits to develop to improve lateral leadership capabilities.  For me, it was an interesting perspective, particularly as an employee in a company that has a very top-down leadership approach.

The articles suggest that networking is a key component of effective lateral leadership, along with skills in integrative negotiating and persuasion.  They also suggest that the acts of setting goals, reviewing goals and key learnings, engaging others, and providing feedback are activities that constitute de facto leadership, even in the absence of formal authority.  To make this all work, teams need effective social chemistry.

Ultimately, what the articles boil down to is the idea that individuals who competently exercise important leadership skills will effectively play a leadership role, regardless of formal power structures.  It’s an intriguing idea.  But it’s the last part of the “Exerting Influence” column that’s the real ringer: for this to work, you need the right environment, including the social chemistry, and support from the organization in facilitating the development of this chemistry.  One major implication of this is that organizations need to be open to new ideas from all sources within the company, and to cultivating and supporting talent and skill at all levels.  Organizations that cling to formal, hierarchical structures will miss opportunities to develop leadership and enhance the organization as a whole.

One important insight I gained from these articles was how to develop and work on my own leadership skills by focusing on improving my networking abilities, finding ways to get more comfortable around people I work with, and taking part in setting and reviewing goals.  But another very important insight I gained was a mechanism for evaluating and understanding how organizations view leadership and authority, and the relationship between the two, and what that tells me about the organizational culture.  I think this learning will be key in my long-term career development.

The End Game

Besides writing, I also like to draw, though it’s a hobby that I devote almost no time to, these days.  As with my writing, I prefer to draw things that are, by nature, either fantasy or science fiction.  Several years ago, somewhere in the early part of the decade, I posted several of my fantasy pictures to a website devoted to fantasy art called “Elfwood“.

A couple years ago, I was perusing my old elfwood page (which I hadn’t updated in ages, because of the aforementioned neglect of my drawing hobby) when I noticed that someone who had left a comment on one of my pages had passed away.  The person was a writer who had uploaded some of his written work onto the elfwood site.  When I read his biography, it told how he was a career businessman who retired and had started a new career as a fantasy writer.  The year he passed away he was expecting to get his first novel published.

I realized then that this is my fear: that I will work hard throughout my life at a career that ultimately does little to satisfy, and when I am finally freed from the shackles of the corporate world, I pass away before seeing the publication of any of my real work.  A story like the one from the writer who commented on my elfwood page reminds me that this is not an idle fear.  It is a reminder to “carpe diem”, as they say, and to do now what you can do to succeed and make something positive of life.

But if your goal in life is to get published, it’s not that easy.

When I was an undergraduate in college, I decided to pursue a degree in Business Administration.  It was not a subject for which I had any great passion.  But I made that choice with a purpose in mind.  I knew that one day I would be a husband and father and that, as such, I would have a responsibility to provide for the needs of my family.  To fulfill that responsibility, I would need a career with some reasonable amount of certainty, a job with some security and I knew the vagaries of a writer’s life were filled with uncertainties.  Or at least, I had read as much, in advice written by other writers, already successful and of some renown in their field.  And if they, being successful writers, had cause to offer such warnings on the uncertainties of success as a writer, I reasoned, what cause had I to suppose that my own fate in that line of work would be any more certain?

I choice a career in Business because it should prove a sure path to relatively secure and certain employment.

And it has been relatively secure, despite a few hiccups along the way.  But what it has not been is a sure path to self-fulfillment.  For that, I have my family, and I have my writing.

I personally know of three people, not counting myself, who have aspirations to become fantasy novelists.  Of course, I know many more who just enjoy reading fantasy or consuming fantasy and science fiction in various other media.  But I have to wonder: is this an anomaly, or is this normal?  Are there untold numbers of aspiring fantasy and science-fiction novelists, or do I just happen to know an unusual few?  Does such a high percentage of us, comparatively speaking, desire to write?  My gut tells me that this is normal, this is a trend, that there is an unusually high number of people who would be writers, if only they could be.  I’ve seen other evidence of this assertion, as well (the fact “how to write science-fiction and fantasy” books continue to sell – surely I cannot be the only one who reads these – or the number who post sample works online, and still other evidence beyond that).  And that’s a sobering thought.  The fact is, statistically speaking, of the three I know and myself, not a one of us is likely to actually be successful in seeing our work published by a major publishing firm.  Of the countless number of those who would be published, some will fail because they lack the motivation to keep trying.  Some will fail because, frankly, they lack the talent and skill (and I pray that I am not among them!).  But there are many who will have the motivation to keep trying, who have the talent and have honed their skill, and yet will still fall short of that goal.

If they have the talent and the perseverance, then why do they fail?