Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Big Picture

I spent the best part of today wandering the expansive corridors of the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. In fact, it would probably take at least another day to absorb all that it has to offer but off to the Louvre tomorrow. Hopefully, tomorrow will be as inspirational as today which provided me with a great psychological metaphor.

The Musee D’Orsay has a great collection of impressionist artists such as Monet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Pissarro and, of course, Renoir. Apart from the pure genius of how these guys used a paintbrush and their paints, there were a few other takeaways about human behaviour as I peered closely at each brush stroke on the canvas and then slowly backed away to look from a distance.

The first thing to notice, particularly with the work of Monet, who was a master of this style, is that the devil is not in the detail. There is no detail at all when you look closely. The picture is a bit of a blur and, in some cases, you no idea what you are looking at: just daubs of paint going this way and that with apparent randomness. It is only when you retreat that the picture makes sense and your mind gasps. Another thing is that these blokes were not afraid to use colour. Again, close up the shades of purple, green, blues and reds don’t seem right. But it all changes when you step back, sometimes onto the toes of some poor soul who is behind you. There is no such thing as white in these impressionist paintings. White for them is a mixture of all sorts of colours but it looks perfect from a distance.

You’ve probably guessed at the metaphor in all this for human behaviour, leadership and for organisational life. That it is the big picture that matters not so much the detail. We can get so caught up in just getting everything just so, the ducks lined up that we miss the real purpose and the important outcome of what we are doing. This is particularly true in a climate of change, which we seem to be in constantly these days. Great painters are able to translate what they see for others in magical ways. Good leaders know how to do this too and make sure everyone is on the same canvas. Knowing where you are going, being a part of something bigger, purpose is a basic human need and motivator

As the old aphorism states, ‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’. A friend of mine in the UK used to point out that you can have all the right ingredients for a pudding but there is tremendous variability in how the pudding turns out. No-one could make apple crumble like my grandma using exactly the same ingredients. I’ve tried.

Another interesting thing about the impressionists is that when they started showing their work the public was not at all impressed. One critic even when so far as to suggest that wallpaper had more to offer than their paintings. The work of Monet and company was such a departure from previous art, from what the people were used to, that they were unable to appreciate it. Instead it was dismissed as not being real art. Not only did they paint outside in real light so that their work was vibrant with bright colour but the subject matter was different. They portrayed Parisian daily life and were not frightened to make bold statements with their choice of subject.

And now their works are worth zillions of dollars. Who wouldn’t mind Springtime at Giverny or Wild Poppies instead of wall paper in their lounge room?

It sometimes takes huge persistence and resilience to get a great idea accepted, to get enough adopters to get to that magic tipping point: to manage the naysayers and survive the criticism. And it takes passion and the ability to see an even bigger canvas than what currently exists. It is a future canvas.

Think of the excitement of painting something that is invisible to everyone else but you. And the challenge of getting others to see it.

Now that’s leadership.


  1. Brilliant and insightful Stewart. I've worked for too many micro-managers who think they are managing the detail but fail to manage the enterprise. Ultimately the micro-managed are defeated and the enterprise fails.

    And the Monet's are the Musée de l'Orangerie Les Nymphéas are also worth a (long) visit. The curved walls make the 13 metre paintings come alive.

  2. Hi Dave. Thanks for the comment. Hope things are well with you.

  3. Thank you Stewart very well said and wonderful inspiration to open this email blog on a Monday morning

    1. Thank you. Hope your week continues to look good