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Leading like Michelangelo

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

leadership potential mentoring

I was in my mid-twenties when Michelangelo’s Pietà first captivated me. There in Vatican City, nestled in the heart of Rome, I walked into St. Peter’s Basilica and there it was. It drew me in slowly, then proceeded to mesmerize my soul with every exquisite detail. The folds of fabric, the veins on his feet and forearm, every muscle, tendon, and feature.

I’ve never seen a stone look so alive.

I came to the Vatican that day to experience the vastness of St. Peter’s and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I wasn’t prepared for what this masterpiece would do to me. I  stood there for an hour drinking in its beauty as the crowds rose and fell around me.

Michelangelo said, “carving is easy, you just have to go down to the skin and stop.” He saw sculpting more as liberating than creating. When he looked at a stone, he could see the figures already living inside; his job was just to set them free.

That’s our job as leaders. We need to steer our eyes to see the masterpiece that’s already living in the people we’re leading. Our job is just to set the masterpiece free. Not only does this attitude serve your people, it serves your organization as well. If you want your company, team or community to become the best it can be, then make sure your people are becoming the best they can be.

Michelangelo liberated many magnificent sculptures, but as a leader you can liberate living masterpieces.

In whom will you look for a masterpiece today?

  1. Sarah
    February 17, 2010 at 8:51 am

    I think the concept of carving being an act of liberation is fascinating. Michealangelo didn’t look at a rock as a rock, but as something amazing. I want to have eyes that see the remarkable in the mundane. I think we sometimes begin to think of ourselves and our lives as unmalleable, always constant, set in stone, never changing. The truth is, things are still being stripped and carved away from us – sometimes painfully – but isn’t it worth the freedom and beauty in the end?

    • GW
      February 17, 2010 at 9:02 am

      It takes a real leader – a leader with vision and courage – to help someone strip away the “good” things that are holding them back from realizing their best. I completely agree you; the process is sometimes painful, but it’s always worth it. That’s the kind of leader I want leading me.

  2. February 17, 2010 at 10:07 am

    I love your analogy. I was in Rome about ten years ago and got to see the Pietà, as well as the Sistine Chapel. It is truly amazing to me that someone could be so talented, and I wish I could have that level of talent in some area of my life. Imagine what would be possible if we could have the brilliance of Michelangelo in the area of leadership, or any other discipline.

    • GW
      February 17, 2010 at 12:43 pm

      Thanks Rick. I agree; I may never be the Michelangelo of leaders, but I can definitely do better by looking for the potential in the people around me as opposed to always seeing the problems.

      I’ve got one person I’m going to focus on today…I’ll let you know how it goes.

  3. February 17, 2010 at 11:34 am


    Hey man, thanks for the good word. Sometimes bringing the best out in others can feel like pushing a rope. But, I think when it does, I’m off base. Your blog motivates me to look for the “skin.”

    I’ll add a practical note for your readers about bringing out the best in others. Sometimes the best way to help is NOT TO HELP.


    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell

    • GW
      February 17, 2010 at 12:47 pm

      “Pushing a rope” – nice one, Dan.

      I’m with you that helping people realize their full potential often requires not helping. I’ve got a 2-year-old at home who’s just entered the I-can-do-everything-by-myself stage. Most of the time we let him try – unless it involves knives or open flames.

      I guarantee my wife is cleaning something up right now.

  4. February 17, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Nicely said Geoffrey! As leaders we sometimes get wrapped up in controlling outcomes rather than freeing people to produce their best. It’s a message many need to hear!

  5. GW
    February 17, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks Katy! “Freeing people to produce their best” – exactly. Besides, it’s so much more fun than trying to control everything!

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