Corner Office-Michelangelo, Change Artist
Last fall, I had the great fortune to tour Italy, and Florence became one of my new favorite places—for its scenery, ambiance, food, wine, and shopping, but also for its art museums. I will never forget seeing Michelangelo’s David statue in the galleries of the Accademia. I was awestruck by its beauty and the seemingly impossible task that Michelangelo faced to turn a block of white marble into this amazing sculpture.
While I was contemplating that, I couldn’t help but think about the task business leaders face when they try to change their organizations. They have a future vision of something beautiful, but then the reality of the white marble block hits them. Michelangelo accomplished his task by having not only vision, but persistence, a sense of timing, and knowledge of how to use the tools available to him—as effective change agents always do.
Michelangelo believed that the job of the sculptor is to free the forms that are already inside the stone. “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” he wrote. This concept is most vividly seen in his unfinished sculptures, which appear to be struggling to free themselves from the stone.
Successful change management has a similar quality. It occurs when a leader has a vision of the desired future state of the organization, and communicates it in imagery so powerful that all stakeholders understand. One of the greatest examples of this in recent history was when the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad was torn down by Iraqi citizens, with help from American soldiers. It didn’t necessarily alter the outcome of the war, but the image of the statue toppling, with a noose around its neck, gave power to the movement for Iraqi freedom.
Executives focus on their business model and the business plan that will get them to that model, on their strategy and the tactics to execute the strategy—all essential to success. But they don’t realize the equal importance of a vision that links logical reasons for change with emotional ones. For example, a change can be presented as “a great new way to increase revenues.” But it can also be presented in terms of how it affects people: “This will put a stop to the end-of-quarter craziness we go through to meet revenue goals, and will make your jobs easier with steady sales.”
Another way to communicate a vision is to show, not tell. At a client company where I served as interim CEO, I needed to force a culture change from one of spending like the CFO’s office was Fort Knox to one that acknowledged a significant cash-flow crisis. I talked in employee meetings about the need to reduce expenses, but I also demonstrated it by getting rid of rented office plants and asking administrative staff to remove paper clips from memos going into the garbage, so that we could re-use them. Quiet daily actions like these show the desired change and have a greater impact than words alone do.
Michelangelo wrote about painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: “After four tortured years and more than 400 [greater than] life-sized figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become.”
Anyone who’s ever tried to implement change in an organization can relate. Sometimes it feels like you’re just banging your head against the wall! When despair sets in, remember that it took Michelangelo four years to free David from that chunk of marble. The people who are most successful in leading their organizations through major change are the ones with persistence.
Wise leaders are patient, implementing change one layer at a time, like chipping away at a block of stone to make a statue. They engage top managers and lead the march toward the future vision by walking the talk. Change cascades down through the organization and breaks down barriers, but it requires nonstop communication, training on new skills, and managing reactions to the emotional aspects of change as people begin to see how it affects them and their jobs. Change also requires creating a sense of ownership, so front-line employees not only understand the new vision and have the training to carry it out, but also are emotionally on the bus with the executive team. When there’s a spirit of teamwork, ownership, and accountability across the organization, you’ve achieved a transformation.
Sense of Timing
Michelangelo wrote, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.” In leading change, this means understanding how to manage time.
Good artists are more concerned with doing things right than doing them fast. Likewise, for change agents the end game must be more important than expediency. When obstacles occur, effective change managers know how to prioritize problems and buy time to avoid a major crisis.
Sometimes a true crisis must be dealt with immediately, and it can lead to hot emotions and exaggerations. But leaders armed with wisdom know how to settle things down. They know that most challenges can be broken down into smaller steps and that temperance will rule the day.
“The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows,” Michelangelo wrote. I like to imagine him pondering where to pick away and what to keep. How did he know where make those choices?
Effective leaders of change also know how to make tough choices, and can foresee the consequences of those choices. These days more than ever, their decisions about the companies they run are closely watched and analyzed. A reputation for business leadership and achieving goals is built over a long period of time, but it can be squandered quickly.
That’s why successful change leaders invest their political capital wisely. Their ability to lead is on the line, and before they take a stand or tackle a difficult situation, they calculate how much political capital will be at risk and what they can expect in return. They know how to pick their battles—just as the sculptor makes the right choices about which tools to use and where.
Leading an organization through change can be the most challenging and fulfilling aspect of your career. So when that block of white marble in front of you seems overwhelming, remember that Michelangelo also wrote, “Faith in oneself is the best and safest course.” With the right leadership qualities, you will turn your vision into a beautiful reality.