A sudden realization one afternoon got me thinking about what it takes to become a good leader. It came down to a very simple idea that painters of masterpieces have been using for centuries. We can take that idea and improve our own mastery of the art of leadership. It’s the idea of a leadership sketchbook.
It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.
A few years back, my wife and I were visiting the Prado Museum in Madrid to see the art work of some of the masters. We wandered through the different galleries, marveling at the masterpieces on display – scenes of people, animals, still-life. All expertly and creatively done, each brush stroke evoking moods and ideas.
Entering one gallery, we encountered a lighted case that featured a scrap of paper not much larger than a 5×8 card. On it was a rough pencil sketch of an indoor scene by a window. Next to it was another sketch. It was the same scene but from a slightly different angle. There were more drawings, each slightly better, some elements done in greater detail, or viewed from a slightly different perspective. As the drawings progressed, the artist also experimented with lighting and color.
The trail of sketches ultimately led us to the final product. This one was framed, displayed on a wall of its own, much larger and exquisitely rendered.
Somehow, I had this sense that a masterpiece was created in a burst of inspiration on a single canvas, from a great idea fully realized. On display in front of me was the opposite of that belief. What became the masterpiece began more as the seed of an idea, scratched out on a piece of paper not much different from a cocktail napkin.
Through painstaking repetition and infinite adjustments, the artist refines the work and gives it clarity. With more practice she perfects the different parts of the whole, constantly tinkering with relationships, endlessly seeking the best fit, and adding color and light along the way.
Is leadership really that different?
Painting Your Masterpiece
Perhaps there are some leadership masters out there, just as there are naturally talented musicians, athletes, and artists, but the vast majority of us are not that gifted. If we want to get good at something, we have to work at it. Even those with talent won’t get far unless they match their in-born ability with discipline and focused effort.
It’s the same with leadership. Leadership can be taught, learned, improved upon. Like learning an instrument, preparing for a marathon, or painting a work of art, leadership is a skill that can be acquired and refined.
Artists use sketch books to put their ideas onto paper and practice their drawing technique. How can we replicate this idea and create a kind of leadership sketchbook?
The Leader’s Sketchbook
On a daily basis, leaders who want to learn and improve their practice do things like these:
Reviewing – When a key event is over, they conduct an after-action review. They look back, think about how things went, and decide how they can do better the next time. Before the event happens again, they read the reviews from the last time to avoid making the same mistakes.
Requesting feedback – They seek candid input from peers, teammates and bosses. They recognize that they may not be the best judge of how well or poorly they are doing; those who are led are in a better position to provide helpful input. Learning leaders take advantage of lots of ways to get helpful feedback beyond just the annual review.
Responding, not reacting – When difficult problems arise, they don’t instantly react, following their gut. They pause, consider different perspectives, consult experienced others, think about secondary and tertiary effects, and then they respond deliberately. They may act quickly and resolutely, but never in haste.
Reading – They read about the lives and experiences of other leaders, and about the tactics and techniques of their trade. They visualize themselves in other people’s circumstances and think about what they might have done under the same conditions. In doing so, they learn from the experiences of others.
Analyzing other leaders – They look at the leaders around them and ask themselves what makes one leader appealing and inspiring? What is it about another that robs me of motivation? They think about these things deliberately, and work to adjust their own behaviors accordingly. Based on their observations, they intentionally try to be more like the leaders they admire, less like the ones that they do not.
Going to school – Artists take classes to improve their ability to work in a medium. Leaders can do the same, saving time and learning from the experts. Some universities offer online classes, and there are some quality free YouTube videos available (including a few of my own); another resource is to check out my online course Essential Leadership Skills for the New Manager.
Journaling – A final technique is to consolidate all those lessons and observations from above in a notebook dedicated to the purpose. Like the artist’s sketchbook, we can fill this leadership sketchbook with thoughts and ideas, favorite quotes, pitfalls to avoid in the future, and things we want to do better next time. Write it all out on actual paper with pen or pencil – there is something concrete about the focused act of writing down a thought that helps sear it into our minds and makes us more likely to act on it in the future.
Leadership Sketchbook – The Takeaway
Maybe that museum display of the practice drawings struck me because most of the time, all we see is the final product. Perfectly hung, expertly lit, in full size and color, mounted in a custom display to highlight the strength and quality of the work, we see the masterpiece and are amazed. How could one person have created such beauty?
The answer is that they worked at it. They used a sketchbook to capture and refine their ideas. They deliberately focused on key areas and worked to improve them, and they did so with perseverance over time. The masters weren’t born great, they made themselves great. For leaders, it is the same.
Things worth remembering:
- Every master was once just a kid with a crayon.
- There are no bleachers in the art studio, but that’s where the masters developed their skill
- Leaders, like artists, have the power to add color and light
- Even Leonardo DaVinci had a sketchbook.
The biggest difference between the leader and the artist is that at some point the masterpiece is hung upon the wall, while the leader’s work is never fully finished.