Consultant Michael Gelb believes we all have what it takes to think like Leonardo da Vinci. We just need to know how to develop the genius within.
Astronomer, architect, botanist, humorist, engineer, inventor, musician, painter, philosopher, raconteur – these are just a few of the words used to describe Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance man.
Master of the martial art Aikido, public speaker, teacher, author, professional juggler and creativity guru are a few of the words used to characterize modern-day freethinker Michael Gelb.
Long fascinated by the nature of genius, Gelb has immersed himself in the notebooks, art and inventions of da Vinci, who’s recognized as one of the greatest thinkers of all time. The results of this study, says Gelb, are seven elements of genius anyone can develop to be more like the master: curiosità, an insatiable quest for knowledge and continuous improvement; dimostrazione, learning from experience; sensazione, sharpening the senses; sfumato, managing ambiguity and change; arte/scienza, whole-brain thinking; corporalità, body-mind fitness; and connessione, seeing the connections between everything.
Those principles became the outline for his latest book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day (Delacorte Press, New York, 1998). As president of the High Performance Learning Center in Chevy Chase, MD, Gelb has worked with numerous businesses including Amoco, AT&T, DuPont, Ford, IBM, National Public Radio and Xerox to teach their leaders and staff to think and act more like da Vinci. Speaking with TRAINING’S associate editor, Kim Kiser, Gelb recently offered the following observations about da Vinci’s genius, and how it can be applied within organizations.
It’s OK to have smart people as your heroes.
We all seek out people who have extraordinary abilities. It calls on something in the human spirit. When I was growing up, most kids had Superman as a hero. Kids want to find a way to feel more powerful, and Superman is the most powerful being one could imagine. They probably didn’t know about Leonardo da Vinci yet. But both had extraordinary powers.
The difference is that Leonardo da Vinci was a real hero. I think of Leonardo as a global archetype of human potential. He was a great athlete; a gifted musician; he was brilliant mathematically; a wonderful writer; one of the greatest artists who ever lived; a pioneer in the modern disciplines of botany, anatomy and geology; an inventor who conceptualized the submarine, snorkel, flying machine, helicopter and parachute. And he was charming, a great storyteller and a humorist. If you think of psychologist Howard Gardner’s idea of the seven intelligences – verbal, mathematical, mechanical, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal – Leonardo was a genius in each of those areas.
We’re all born with unlimited potential for learning.
But two things hold us back: fear of failure and lack of training. Unfortunately, the way a lot of schools are set up, teachers with classes that are too big and a lot of material to get through must contend with kids who naturally embody the first da Vincian principle of curiositá. Like Leonardo, they want to know everything with incredible passion, and they ask a lot of questions. Teachers say, “We don’t have time for all these questions” or “That’s a silly question.” You learn that it’s not about asking questions. It’s not about creativity or selfexpression. It’s about behaving well and getting the right answer and jumping through the hoop and not making a mistake.
I think our educational system evolved that way because there was a need in the Industrial Age for people who could take their place on the assembly line or work in a bureaucracy where the most important skill was to follow directions. Every client I have has been trying to break down their bureaucracy for the last 20 years. To do that, they have to think differently. We learn in school about history, math and English, but the curriculum does not focus as much as it should on learning about how your brain works-techniques for creative thinking, memory development, reading faster, retaining better, communicating more effectively, learning to listen. When I began studying Leonardo, I studied him with these questions in mind: What was his method for thinking, for problem-solving, for learning? How could that method be abstracted and applied to the concerns of the people I work with in organizations?
Left-brained bean counters can be taught to think more like the right-brained marketers.
One thing I try to do is teach people to use logic and imagination in harmony. It’s the fifth da Vincian principle, arte/scienza. Leonardo is the example I use to encourage my clients to balance their logical, analytical orientation with a more imaginative, intuitive orientation. There tends to be a split between these modes, both among individuals and across organizations. For example, the left-brainers in the accounting department will look over at the more imaginative people in marketing and tell them they have their heads in the clouds and don’t understand the bottom line. The people in marketing will then complain that the bean counters don’t see the big picture.
The secret is to teach them to generate ideas, solve problems and learn faster. In my program, I start out by giving people a memory test, a problem-solving test, a creativity test, and a test of mind/body coordination. People tend not to do so well in all these areas. But I teach them about the balance of logic and imagination using mnemonics, memory exercises that call on the brain’s ability to visualize images; mind-mapping, recording information and ideas and connecting those that are related; and idea-generation games. I also teach them to juggle. Da Vinci was a juggler, and juggling is a lighthearted way to address the very serious issue of people’s approach to learning. Juggling trains the learner to be aware of the big picture and the details. Students learn to use the right amount of energy in the right place at the right time – a fundamental secret of high performance in business, athletics and life. One of the keys to this approach is letting go of the unnecessary tension associated with the fear of making mistakes. Students are guided to focus on the quality of the throw (the process), rather than worry about the catch. This takes the fear of failure out of the process.
Then I coach them to apply what they learned. They go from getting 40 percent to 50 percent correct on the memory test to getting 100 percent. They go from generating an average score on the idea-generation test to getting a genius-level score. They go from thinking they could never learn to juggle to actually learning how to juggle. They go from not being able to put ideas together quickly for an extemporaneous speech to being able to do that and make it fun.
Change your corporate culture by teaching employees to speak up.
After these seminars, I would often ride off into the sunset knowing that the organization – the system these individuals were part of – hadn’t changed at all. That’s how I became interested in systems or the seventh da Vincian principle – connessione. Connessione means that everything connects to everything. I realized I needed to partner with my clients and apply these principles to help people change their culture.
I’ve been working with a large pension fund since 1985. At a pension fund, the main skill you need is mathematical intelligence. You run the model, you sit in front of the stock quote machines, and you tweak the numbers until you reach your benchmark. That’s all well and good until you face a bad quarter, which you inevitably will. One of the leaders of this company recognized that in addition to having the best mathematical minds, they needed people who are good communicators, who could help clients deal with the uncertainty that’s inevitable in the investment business. He wanted to train people to be better communicators and to hire people who had good mathematical and interpersonal skills.
We made communication and creativity training part of the culture. As a result, employees began to use their new skills to craft the vision, mission, values and strategic plan for the group. They began holding regular ‘town meetings’ and changed their protocol for all meetings to encourage broader and more open participation.
We also restructured the recruiting and hiring program. A couple of weeks ago, I led a three-day orientation for new hires. Almost half of the new people were women. (This had been a predominantly white-male organization.)
There were African-Americans, three people from India, people of Chinese and Japanese descent. These new people were all razor sharp on the analytical, mathematical side, and they were much better communicators and more creative people than the firm used to hire. That’s where the rubber meets the road, where you change the look and feel and makeup of the workplace in a way that fits with what you want to do.
Don’t talk about creating a learning organization unless you’re serious.
I’ve worked for big companies that are doing great things. They get to a point where people are starting to think more creatively, more like Leonardo, then the stock price drops and they pull the plug on training. I don’t hear from them for a year or two, then they call back and say, “We’re desperate. We need creativity.” And I have to start over again. That’s the dark side of this.
I try to tell them it’s better not even to talk about creativity and creating a learning organization unless they’re serious. If you’re not committed and not prepared to walk your talk, you’re just going to build more cynicism and alienation. It’s better to say, “Look people, we don’t care about learning, we don’t care about creativity, and we don’t care about you. You’re lucky to have a job, now go back to work.” It’s better to be honest than to say, “We’re going to change and create a culture that supports development because people are our most precious resource,” then layoff 40 percent of your work force.
Recognize the limits of life on a cube farm.
Organizations talk about being more creative, learning faster and thinking outside the box. So what do they do? They put people in boxes. Long before the comic strip “Dilbert” became popular, I used to talk to people about “cubicle consciousness.” It’s the idea that if you put people in cubicles with minimal distractions and fluorescent lighting overhead that somehow they will be more efficient and won’t be distracted. But what that does is starve the imagination.
I did some work with DuPont’s Learning Resources Organization, which was training people to use and maintain a machine designed to conduct complex diagnostic blood tests. At the time, they were bringing people into their training center for a course. The problem was, the training was cost-effective only if it could be done in a week; it was taking two or three weeks.
The head of training asked me to do a three-day version of “How to think like Leonardo da Vinci.” We took the principles and applied them to this problem. What they decided to do was create a more brain-nourishing environment-more sensazione. They had this boring room. The art on the walls was pictures of the blood-testing machine. They would have one break in the morning and one in the afternoon where people could go to the lounge and have coffee or a cigarette. It was a classic cubicle-consciousness environment.
So they took down the pictures of the machine and put up Impressionist prints. They played classical music, and they instituted a policy encouraging people to take 10 minutes of
break time every hour. We know from the psychology of learning that if you learn something for 60 minutes and then take a 10 minute break, your recall is higher at the end of the 10 minute break than at the end of the 60 minutes. It’s the “reminiscence effect.” They also changed the lounge into an adult playroom filled with flip charts, colored pens, juggling balls and toys to facilitate learners’ curiositá. The facilitators did their own study of the effect of these changes over a year and found they cut people’s learning time in half.
Turn your training department into a department of constructive mistake-making.
In the business world, senior executives overwhelmingly point to a failure to heed the lessons of their own experience as the prime cause of their worst decisions. People don’t want to make mistakes, they don’t want to be wrong, and they don’t want to be held accountable. That’s why most consultants are employed – so they can make the decisions and be wrong and take the blame for them if they don’t work. That’s the opposite of what a learning organization is all about.
Like IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr. said, if you want to succeed, double your failure rate. Kids make mistakes all the time. You don’t learn to walk without falling down. You don’t learn to speak without mispronouncing a lot of words. You don’t learn to juggle without dropping balls. But if you create an environment where people are afraid to make mistakes and they cover them up, then they’re into covering up rather than learning. That’s why I think organizations should change the name of the training department to the” department of constructive mistake-making.” If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning anything valuable.
Use mind maps to navigate your way through uncertainty.
In the last six months, several of my clients have been sold or merged. This trend is going to continue. Change has always been a constant; it’s just more apparent today. Perhaps Voltaire said it best: “Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous.” One has to find a way to maintain a sense of “centeredness,” balance and flexibility.
One of my clients, a rapidly growing coaxial cable manufacturer, has been coping with such changes. The firm recently spun off from its parent company and moved to a new, larger facility. The president saw the need to clarify the organization’s vision and guide his people to greater alignment and customer focus in the face of physical, structural, technological and cultural changes.
Working with a team of representatives from all levels of the company, we began by making mind maps of the changes. Mind-mapping is a practical technique for generating and organizing ideas that evolved from a study of da Vinci’s own style of taking notes. Using images, color and key words in a nonlinear format, mindmapping engages the whole brain. It helps people manage change and complexity by making it easier to see connections, relationships and patterns. As the group gained perspective on the situation, they were able to map out a new, clearer vision for the company. The mind-mapping exercises drew on the creativity of the team and brought them together in the face of chaos and complexity.
Teach people to be men and women of the modern Renaissance.
When to day’s kids think of the world, they think of a network. Their model is the Internet and its ability to connect them instantly with minds around the world. People in their 30s or 40s grew up with a top-down, hierarchical model of the world. If you’re stuck in a top-down model, you will be attempting to solve Information Age problems with Industrial Age thinking skills. It will make your work harder, and you’ll get less in terms of results.
The human mind is a tremendously effective learning mechanism. But you need to apply some simple principles for getting it focused. The seven da Vincian principles can form the basis for an enlightened, renaissance training program: Teach people to think for themselves and learn from mistakes; sharpen people’s senses and awareness; guide them through the unknown; craft training in a whole-brained fashion; pay attention to the body and mind, as they are never separate; connect what you’re teaching so it’s clearly relevant to learners and something they perceive as important to the vision, mission and values of the organization. And remember that training is not just spending two or three days in a seminar, then coming back and putting the binder of information you got on the shelf because you’re too busy to apply what you’ve learned. It’s building a longterm process of re-creating and reinforcing the process of learning.
Reprinted with permission from the June 1999 issue of TRAINING Magazine. Copyright 1999. Lakewood Publications, Minneapolis, MN. All rights reserved.