The Leadership Code of Leonardo da Vinci

In a recent interview with Universia-Knowledge@Wharton, Juan Carlos Cubeiro shares his insights into the mysteries hidden behind the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and how they can be applied to the business world. Cubeiro, a well-known expert in the areas of talent, leadership and coaching, discusses the value of the Leonardo brand and the parallels between Leonardo’s formative process and that of an executive. A professor at the Deusto business university in Bilbao, Spain, he has spent the last 10 years focusing on strategies for strengthening teams and has written a book entitled, Leonardo da Vinci and His Leadership Code. According to Cubeiro, the great lesson of Leonardo’s life and works is that genius is not a question of genetics but of boldness.

Cubeiro also teaches in the business schools of San Pablo-CEU (Madrid), Caixanova (Galicia), Estema (Valencia), and E&S (Castellón), and is director of Eurotalent, a Spanish consulting firm that specializes in managing talent.

Universia-Knowledge@Wharton: Can we put a value on the Leonardo Da Vinci brand? How does a genius create a brand that has endured for almost six centuries?

Juan Carlos Cubeiro: The Leonardo da Vinci brand has a value that can be calculated just like any highly regarded company, artist or athlete. There are companies that specialize in it. David Aaker, a branding guru, would say that the Leonardo brand is worth more than that of Coca-Cola, which is estimated at about $70 billion. The interesting thing is that Leonardo didn’t ask to make himself “the brand” for genius par excellence, and that he lived out his life in the France of Francis I. Throughout history, the French have been the best ambassadors of any brand. Let’s not forget that one quarter of Leonardo’s output of painting can be found in the Louvre, which was the first museum that was opened to the public.

Over the course of 500 years, Leonardo has been the subject of a biography by Giorgio Vasari, who also lived in the sixteenth century; the author of a famous “Treatise on Painting” published in the seventeenth; the favorite artist of the French academicians in the eighteenth century as well as the favorite of the Italian independence movement in the nineteenth. Leonardo has been described as the “first scientist” and more recently became the inspiration for American fans of the esoteric, who discovered heretical messages in his “Last Supper,” “Saint John the Baptist” and “Mona Lisa.” There isn’t just one Leonardo. There are several, and they are all very attractive. We recall his famous self-portrait in which he is a sort of Socrates, Merlin and Western shaman. The Leonardo brand re-invents itself again and again over time.

UK@W: Leonardo was a painter, inventor, scientist, and so forth. In the world of business, is it necessary to be so multi-faceted? Or is specialization preferable?

J.C.C.: Leonardo had as many as 16 different occupations: painter, sculptor, architect, interior designer, anatomist, engineer, agronomist, optician, geologist, botanist, urban planner, musician, gourmet, mathematician, festival organizer and, of course, heretical philosopher. He was an impatient soul and he was profoundly observant. Today it would be impossible to dominate so many sciences and arts at the same time. Fortunately, teams that are formed by complementary personalities can behave with a Leonardian mindset. In the business world, it is an advantage when their wide range of skills extends into such areas as flexibility, adaptability to the changing environment and contextual intelligence. It is absurdly dangerous to take the view that people are interchangeable, as in Taylor’s classic approach to management. As people, we cannot do everything. Talent requires a vocation and a sense of enjoyment.

UK@W: What fundamental lessons from the life and work of Leonardo can be applied to the business world?

J.C.C.: The great lesson of the life and work of Leonardo is that genius is not a question of genetics but of boldness. It is not born within you but develops as a result of daring. Leonardo was a genius because he created works that were truly ingenious; paintings that are the quintessential examples of Western civilization as well as works of engineering that were centuries ahead of their time. He managed to change his environment and his context because the world he was living in was not contributing enough. He could have been a good painter of Madonnas in the Florence of the Medicis but he set out to work for Ludovico Sforza, for Cesare Borgia, for the Pope and for Francis I of France. And at each step of the way, he raised his level of skills, his reputation and his legacy.

UK@W: What current companies could serve as an example of “Leonardian” companies and why?

J.C.C.: In this book, I compare the Leonardian company to the Taylorist company (based on the doctrine of America’s Frederick W. Taylor), which has been the model, openly or tacitly, of most companies. Taylorism has instilled the notion that management is a science (when it is actually also ethics, science and art); that human beings are lazy by nature (which leads to distrust in professional management); and that all companies can be divided into those that think and those that execute. The Taylor approach measures the time spent on tasks and it promotes specialization. On the contrary, Leonardian environments promote curiosity, vocation, apprenticeship, initiative, dynamism, mastery, reputation, legacy… As examples, I have cited Toyota, Nokia and Apple; one from each continent. In any case, companies are neither 100% Leonardian nor 100% Taylorist but have various proportions of one or the other.

UK@W: The dyslexia that Leonardo suffered could have been a disadvantage for a genius. How did Leonardo manage to turn that problem into an opportunity? What is the lesson for senior managers

J.C.C.: Dyslexia, which is between 60% and 70% genetic, is not entirely a disadvantage because it enables people to think faster and do so through images (which are from 400 to 2,000 times faster than verbal processing). A different issue is that the educational system usually penalizes dyslexics. Nevertheless, nature itself served as Leonardo’s school. In the arts and in politics, we find extraordinary dyslexics, such as Washington, Jefferson, Kennedy, Churchill, Santa Teresa de Jesus, Andersen, Agatha Christie, Galileo, Edison, Rodin, Picasso, John Lennon, Warhol… And in the business world, Henry Ford, Rockefeller, Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, John Chambers, Ted Turner, Walt Disney

UK@W: What was Leonardo’s vocation?

J.C.C.: A vocation is always a call to do something. It is the willingness to dedicate your body and soul to what pleases you the most and satisfies you entirely. Leonardo discovered his vocation for the arts in the environment of his grandparents’ house between the age of five and 16, and from his uncle Francesco. He also had the enormous good fortune to enter the workshop of Verrochio, the best during that period when Medici Florence was enjoying an explosion of creativity. He maintained that sense of calling for the rest of his life.

UK@W: What does Leonardo’s formative process have in common with that of an executive?

J.C.C.: The formative process of the Florentine genius never stopped. In addition to the teachings of Verrochio and his team, he learned from the portrait artists of the Netherlands and from the humanists of the Renaissance, including Machiavelli (Although his values were very different). He collected his observations and thoughts in thousands of pages of notebooks, which he began in his 30s. The best managers never stop learning, studying, reflecting, training and practicing coaching. Personally or professionally, they are continuously improving. There is nothing worse than the arrogance to believe that you already know everything.

UK@W: It is generally considered that Leonardo’s success is due, in part, to the fact that he knew how to work with senior hierarchy, including popes and European kings. Is there an important lesson in the way he treated his superiors?

J.C.C.: I learned something from my friend Vicente Blanco who runs Eurotalent, the Spanish management consultancy, and who has more than 35 years of business experience: You have to apply three principles when you deal with bosses. First, always get along well with them (maintain a relationship based on trust and mutual compromise). Second, bring solutions to him or her, but don’t bring your problems. Third, realize that if things go well for your boss, they will also go well for you. Leonardo’s relationships with his bosses were uneven. They were excellent with Francis I, good with Ludovico the Moor, passable with Cesare Borgia, and bad with Lorenzo de Medici and the Florentine republic. This wasn’t his strongest virtue.

UK@W: Was there more innovation during the fifteenth century than during the twenty-first century?

J.C.C.: Without doubt, [there is more] during the current period. More scientists are active today than in the entire history of humanity. In this sense, Leonardo’s work is worthy but not comparable to the pace of current innovation. We cannot fall into the myth of the “golden age.” The Renaissance put human beings back at the center [of the world]. But the twenty-first century, at least in the West, is a much more attractive environment for innovation.

UK@W: Do fame and prestige go hand in hand? Is Leonardo’s popularity comparable with the media appearances of some of our current [corporate] presidents?

J.C.C.: In today’s world, clearly not….Leonardo’s current popularity is the result of an opportunistic novel that was brought to the big screen. However, very few people can name three or more of his works. Leonardo knew how to make himself into an icon that was sober, elegant and distinguished. He knew how to create his image as a universal sage through means of his memorable self-portrait. These days, we ask our business leaders (and perhaps, also our politicians) to display a certain humility so that their fame doesn’t go to their head. We also ask for a high level of visibility because customers, employees, and society in general need to put a face on the company that they know. As Woody Allen says, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” That’s why it is highly recommended that top executives appear in the media, express their viewpoints, and make commitments about topics that involve their organization and society in general.

UK@W: To sum up, what are the leadership principles that can be learned from the life of Leonardo da Vinci?

J.C.C.: Leading means setting guidelines, infusing energy and getting people to give their best. The Leonardian style in painting is based on appreciating the emotions of various personalities (Mona Lisa, the Apostles of the Last Supper, Saint John the Baptist, the Virgin, Saint Anna, Saint Jerome, the Three Magi, the women of the period, the soldiers at the Battle of Anghiari and so many others). He knew how to listen to people. Leonardo defended peace and freedom as vital principles and he showed an extremely high level of such essential leadership skills as bravery and courage. He also showed a capacity to communicate; optimism; serenity and genuine interest in other people. Thanks to his disciples (the “members of his team”), we have been left with other paintings as well as his treatises and his notebooks. Like few other people, Leonardo showed us that talent is not something that is fixed or predetermined but is something that develops. That’s why a poor and illegitimate boy who had little education, was dyslexic, asexual and born in a tiny town, could make himself into one of the greatest geniuses. Leonardo showed us that beauty, goodness and truth (art, ethics and science) are all part of the same indissoluble whole.

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