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In this article, we share an imaginary talk with the Italian genius about innovation, human limits, and facing the future through value-creation and teamwork. 

Leonardo Da Vinci was the very definition of innovation. I was able to confirm this during a recent visit to the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum in Florence. Among the many objects and works of art he envisioned, Leonardo designed a flying machine, a folding bridge, a mechanical saw, a mud dredger to clean up harbors and canals, and a precursor to our modern automobile. He even came up with a system for heating up water using concave lenses, creating a kind of renewable energy resource. 

After the past two pandemic years, reencountering the work of Leonardo Da Vinci has made me realize, more clearly than before, that his mind did not accept the limitations of his time period. He imagined machines, ideas, and concepts that pointed to the future of mankind, up to our current era. And he did this in a 15th century world that, though it was beginning to explore the unknown, was not necessarily open to provocative, disruptive ideas. His inventions sought to simplify the lives of his contemporaries, yet Leonardo’s machines were perceived as threats by artisans and manufacturers. They feared human beings would be replaced by such contraptions, much like what is happening today with the advancement of artificial intelligence. 

In fact, there are plenty of parallels between our time and that of Leonardo. Which is why, as I looked upon his schematics for a flying ornithopter, I thought about how he’d view our current era. I let my imagination run wild and saw us sharing a coffee at the Piazza degli Uffizi. 

 

Gabriel Weinstein: Leonardo, long time no see! You wouldn’t believe how our lives have changed lately. And I’m not even talking about the first pandemic of the 21st century, which is as challenging as you can probably guess. No, I’m talking about all the fascinating technological transformations we’re going through. Today, we have virtual coins, autonomous cars, and pleasure trips to outer space. With modern tools, we can control a production line in Asia from your hometown in Vinci. In fact, we can study and communicate with people from anywhere in the world, all from a small screen. We can even produce artificial meat, flour, and vegetables as delicious as (or more so than) their natural forms. And we can create life in a lab. 

But it’s not all good news, I’m afraid. We’re consuming so many resources that we’re literally burning up the sources of oxygen that allow us to live on this beautiful planet. Also, despite our technology, 10% of the world population is still hungry. So we find ourselves at a crossroads. We need to rethink our path and relearn our habits in a very challenging context. That’s why I’m so glad to have run into you, so I can ask for your advice. 

Leonardo Da Vinci: To think differently, you need to be audacious. As you say, our very nature pushes us to preserve the status quo, to stay in our comfort zone. But nothing truly new can emerge from there. To think “outside the box,” as you like to say, you have to allow for mistakes. Without mistakes, there can be no learning. I had two things in my favor. First, I had patrons who gave me economic and physical space to work. And then, I lived in an era, the Florence of the Medicis, when knowledge and learning were the order of the day. There’s a reason they call it the Renaissance! And it laid the foundation for everything that came later. 

That said, some activities I had to perform in secret, like my anatomical studies. Don’t forget that, back then, the preservation of the human body was still protected by the Catholic Church. Also, my numerous mechanical contraptions required plenty of trial and error before I could actually show them off to people and promote their value. There’s no other way to be innovative. Creating and trying new things requires new spaces and new rules. It doesn’t happen overnight. The good news is that genius is not innate and you don’t carry it in your genes. You can and have to work for it. 

GW: Considering your own embattled learning path, how do you think innovation teams should work in uncertain times? 

LDV: First of all, you have to understand that true innovation is not a solitary path. It requires a team and it’s the result of teamwork. As leaders, we have to encourage teamwork above all else. In uncertain times, teams can explore more paths at lower costs. Another thing to keep in mind: as creators and collaborators, we need down time as well as uncertainty. My famous painting, the Mona Lisa, is a good example of this. I learned that, when working on a project, I sometimes need to focus my mind on other things, so it can rest and I can nourish the creative process. A leader who does not understand this will rapidly find himself with tired, unmotivated teams. Finally, you have to remember that perfect is the enemy of good. You may consider the Mona Lisa to be my best work, but I’ve always thought I could’ve done it better. Your team should constantly challenge itself, but it should also know when to walk away from a project and move on. 

GW: In your time, you were surrounded by both great transformations and great leaders. What insights have you gleaned about leadership in times of change? 

LDV: You can’t ever feel satisfied. You must keep questioning yourself and inspiring in others a love for learning. If you set the example, as a leader, then your teams will feel empowered to do likewise. Here’s another piece of advice: surround yourself with people from different fields. In my inner circle, I knew mathematicians and economists, such as Luca Pacioli, who greatly influenced probability theory. I knew doctors and experts in anatomy, such as Marcantonio della Torre. There was also my dear Niccolò Machiavelli, who you now consider to be the father of Political Philosophy. And even Michelangelo, who you call my rival, was someone I could learn from. To sum up, you shouldn’t stick to what you know. Be bold enough to lead your teams to wherever your varied interests take you. And where those interests intersect, creativity and innovation can flower. 

And here’s something else I learned: as more information becomes available, you can take advantage of this to challenge your own beliefs. A leader should never stop doing this. They should always measure their own opinions against objective facts. And in your 21st century, when information is so readily accessible, this lesson is doubly true. 

So concluded my imaginary talk with the master. Looking into his legacy has reminded me that, in these complex and chaotic times, the best lessons are often close at hand. We don’t need illuminated individuals to show us the path forward. We can look to the past for answers that are as useful today as they were back then. To Leonardo, this would’ve been common sense. 

 

By Gabriel Weinstein, Managing Director at OLIVIA Europa