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Fear of the Unknown?

Scrared AfAm woman The "stand-out" leaders cited in the 2010 IBM Global CEO survey (those who had successfully capitalized on the increasing complexity of the global markets through creative thinking and innovative practices) encouraged other leaders to similarly increase their comfort with ambiguity and ongoing experimentation. They also advocated letting go of command-and-control management styles in order to foster more mutual trust in organizations.

Sfumato,” which translates to “going up in smoke,” is a “willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty,” and is the fourth of the da Vinci habits recommended by author Michael Gelb. He writes, “As you awaken your powers of Curiosità, probe the depths of Dimostrazione (experience), and sharpen your senses, you come face to face with the unknown. Keeping your mind open in the face of uncertainty is the single most powerful secret of unleashing your creative potential.” This ability does not come to those who rely solely on their left-brained, analytical thinking capacities.

Gelb writes that the ceaseless application of these practices led da Vinci to many great insights and discoveries, “but they also led him to confront the vastness of the unknown and ultimately the unknowable. Yet his phenomenal ability to hold the tension of opposites, to embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox was a critical characteristic of his genius.” The theme of the tension of opposites grew in his work over the course of his lifetime – we can see this in even a cursory look at the maestro’s Mona Lisa.

Gelb writes, “In the past, a high tolerance for uncertainty was a quality to be found only in great geniuses like Leonardo. As change accelerates, we now find that ambiguity multiplies, and illusions of certainly become more difficult to maintain. The ability to thrive with ambiguity must become part of our everyday lives. Poise in the face of paradox is a key not only to effectiveness, but to sanity in a rapidly changing world.”

In his self-assessment on the strength of our own Sfumato, Gelb invites us to rate ourselves on a scale of 1-10 on each point, with one being a "maniacal" need for certainty at all times, and ten approximating that of an enlightened Taoist master.

  • I am comfortable with ambiguity.
  • I am attuned with the rhythms of my intuition. Chicken or egg?
  • I thrive with change.
  • I have a tendency to “jump to conclusions.”
  • I enjoy riddles, puzzles, and puns.
  • I usually know when I am feeling anxious.
  • I spend sufficient time on my own.
  • I trust my gut.
  • I can comfortably hold contradictory ideas in my mind.
  • I delight in paradox and am sensitive to irony.
  • I appreciate the importance of conflict in inspiring creativity.

He then offers a variety of good exercises that help participants to explore the various aspects of their own Sfumato and ways to increase ability in this area.

In closing, the author points to a study conducted by the American Management Association in the 1980’s that concluded thatthe most successful managers were distinguished by ‘high tolerance for ambiguity and intuitive decision-making skill.’” In the The Logic of Intuitive Decision Making, Dr. Weston Agor reported his findings from extensive interviews conducted of senior executives who overwhelmingly concluded that their worst decisions had resulted from not following their own intuitions.

Gelb’s bottom line conclusion: Embrace and enjoy ambiguity and trust your gutCeltic knot

How to think like Leonardo Before going on to elaborate on Sr. da Vinci’s seven habits for cultivating creative thinking as  
outlined in M.Gelb's book, it occurred to me that it would be helpful to review a few of the maestro's myriad accomplishments to remind us that his astounding talents went far beyond his creation of two of the world’s greatest paintings, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.   One da Vinci scholar referred to him as “the most curious man who ever lived” (K. Clark’s, Leonardo da Vinci).

Da Vinci, the inventor, made plans for:
A flying machine, helicopter, parachute, extendable ladder, three-speed gear shift, screw-thread cutting machine, bicycle, an adjustable monkey wrench, snorkel, hydraulic jack, revolving stage, a canal lock system, a horizontal waterwheel, an olive press, and more…

The military engineer: Although he referred to war as a “beastly madness,” with the intention of preserving the “chief gift of nature, which is liberty,” he created plans for:
The armored tank, machine gun, mortar, guided missile, and submarine.

He also made significant contributions to the disciplines of anatomy, biology, geology, and physics Among these were his observations of: the correspondence of trees’ ages to the rings in their cross-sections; the leaf arrangement in plants; and the draw of earth’s gravity on some plants, and the sun for others.  He also made significant discoveries regarding fossilization, and was the first to document soil erosion.

  • 40 years before Copernicus, he noted, “The sun does not move…. Nor [is the earth] in the center of the universe.”
  • 60 years before Galileo, he suggested that “a large magnifying lens” should be used to study the heavenly bodies.
  • 200 years before Newton, he anticipated the theory of gravity in his writings and deduced that the earth must therefore be spherical.
  • 400 years before Darwin, his writing placed humans in the same broad category with primates and noted that we do not vary from animals “except in what is accidental.” 

A great deal of his work was incomplete, for which some have considered him a failure!  Gelb writes that beyond the maestro’s scientific achievements, of even greater value was his approach to knowledge, which “set the stage for modern scientific thinking.”

Many scholars agree that beyond his prolific accomplishments, da Vinci “offers the supreme inspiration for reach to exceed grasp.”


Leonardo w butterfly Is it absurd to even dare to dream that we regular folks could embody anything even close to the creative genius of Leonardo da Vinci? A man who played such a pivotal role in the evolution of human intellectual, artistic, and scientific thinking.

By going through Michael Gelb’s wonderful book of the title above, many of us certainly can unleash considerably more of our own creative geniuses. A lifelong scholar on Leonardo da Vinci's life and work, the author identifies and details seven basic habits cultivated by the maestro that enhanced da Vinci's gifts and enriched his life.  Gelb’s book also offers a range of great exercises that will enable those who practice them to nourish their own innovative capacities while enhancing the quality of their lives and enjoyment.  — Perhaps some of us will want to experiment with some of these together, and report out on any "ah-ha" moments?

As I summarize some of these practices over the next couple of weeks, thanks to the miracles of modern podcasting technology — we are going to be blessed with a couple of special guest appearances related to this captivating book! 

Here now, is a list of the seven practices. In subsequent posts, I’ll go into more detail of the various habits and summarize some of the suggested related exercises. The Italian words are listed first, in honor of the maestro’s native tongue. Those that also happen to be referred to by the stand-out leaders in the IBM study (coincidence? hmm..) are bolded in blue, and the subsequent posts will discuss some of those parallels, as well.

  1. Curiosità – Curiosity*: An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning. (My note: A willingness to ask key questions.)
  2. Dimostrazione – A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.
  3. Sensazione — The continual refinement of the senses as the means to enliven experience. 
  4. Sfumato (“going up in smoke”) – A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.
  5. Arte/Scieza – The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination. “Whole-brain thinking.”
  6. Corporalita – The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.
  7. Connessione A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of things and phenomena. Systems thinking.

*Curiosità was a topic recently covered in the “Asking the Right Questions” post. It is telling that it is first on the list.

I'll leave you with one quote from the book related to a classic study on higher education and the low rate of retention, even a month after final exams, at a top university.  This harkens back to a critique I posed in an earlier post: "The authority-pleasing, question-suppressing, rule-following approach to education (and I would add, doing business) may have served to provide society with assembly-line workers and bureaucrats, but it does not do much to prepare us for a new Renaiassance." 

A new renaissance is exactly what is needed with innovative approaches to how we run our organizations and governments, conduct our commerce, and engage our citizens.

Ciao for now!

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