The Renaissance Mind

I’ve always believed that art and science are perfect bedfellows. And as a fanboy of Leonardo da Vinci, poster child of the Renaissance mind, I believe we are entering a period where the marriage of creativity and science will enjoy a revival. Appropriately described by biographer Walter Isaacson as “history’s consummate innovator,” da Vinci had an insatiable curiosity and an innate hunger for discovery that challenged the day’s norms. Known for his artwork, writing, medical discoveries, sculpture, engineering and – not as widely appreciated – music, practically everything about da Vinci’s life was culturally antithetical.

So how does a young person, born a nobody, become one of history’s great innovators? It is believed now that part of his success came from the fact that he wasn’t born into a family name – meaning he had no traditional and restrictive expectations shackling him. Young Leonardo was free to let his mind run wild. The result was the most copious volume of notebooks, papers and illustrations ever created – the greatest demonstration of a creative mind at work the world has ever known. But while da Vinci was able to explore his interests in a voracious and unbridled way, often it needed to be done in secret – particularly his anatomical work. He had to acquire bodies for his exploratory dissections at great personal risk. It was one thing to be arrested for a lifestyle, another to be accused of practicing dark arts. But that was the type of courage da Vinci maintained.

Creativity Takes Courage

Hundreds of years later, humans are still dictated by norms, fear, and expectations. We fear answering a question in class because it may not be well received. We dread doing something wrong at work for fear of not living up to what is expected of us. This is where creativity suffers: we settle. We stay the course and stick to what we know works. Unfortunately, that behavior is the archenemy of innovation. Henri Matisse said, “The artist begins with a vision – a creative operation requiring effort. Creativity takes courage.”

Transformation is not possible without innovation, and creativity is the foundation of transformation. And we aren’t talking creative teams, we are talking about what McKinsey & Company identifies as one of their “growth triple play” pillars: Purpose, Analytics and Creativity. Three disciplines that should be very familiar to us. Their research shows that companies that harness these three elements achieve dramatically higher average growth rates – 2.3 times compared to companies that don’t. How do we enable courageous creativity in all aspects of our work?

When Courage Is Met with Accountability

Among many institutions researching the relationship between innovation, courage and value, Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence presented a paper in 2020 that demonstrated not only the importance of creativity in educational institutions and business, but how it drives value and growth. Just as da Vinci demonstrated hundreds of years ago, minds encouraged to explore possibility in an environment that reveres and supports bravery, tend to consistently outperform. Google became famous for supporting the courage of teams and rewarding failure, and P&G has the Heroic Failure Award. In my recent interview with a creative director at Amazon, I discovered that within the Amazon ecosystem they have designed an environment that supports brave new ideas, even if they fail. In all these instances, courage is met with accountability.

Anyone can own a win, but owning a loss takes courage. While bravery isn’t always first nature, it is where the beauty of the team comes to life. Great collaboration unlocks team courage. When a team of amazing minds unite to explore what’s possible, brilliance happens – and that’s something we all like to be part of and learn from.

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