Eight Lessons Business Leaders Can Still Learn from Leonardo da Vinci

By Anna-Lee Muck, Editor-in-Chief

Leonardo da Vinci leaves a legacy not only as the great artist behind iconic works, including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but also as a great engineer. His ideas and explorations are a product of his time, yet the more you learn about the way he viewed the world around him, the more his influence bridges the centuries.

Five centuries after his lifetime, business leaders today can still benefit from taking a page out of one of Leonardo’s many notebooks (there are 7,200 to choose from!). Following are just a few of those lessons, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci scholars featured on the Trailblazers podcast episode, “Leonardo da Vinci: The Great Trailblazer,” as well as Trailblazers host and best-selling author, Walter Isaacson’s book, Leonardo da Vinci.

1. Innovation is a team sport.

For Leonardo, conceiving ideas was a collaborative endeavor. He would hang out in a Renaissance court in Milan, where people with diverse interests would encounter each other serendipitously and exchange ideas. In fact, it was these interactions with friends that inspired and informed Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, arguably the world’s most famous drawing.

“One of the things that struck me was the role that collaboration and the sharing of ideas had in creating a masterpiece like this. What we can learn is that while genius starts with individual brilliance and a singular vision, execution often entails working with others. Innovation is a team sport.”
— Walter Isaacson, Trailblazers host and author

2. There is value in procrastination.

Procrastination comes naturally to most of us, but Leonardo’s version of procrastination requires serious purpose. While painting The Last Supper, Leonardo would sometimes stare at the work for an hour, make one small stroke, then turn around and leave. He told the commissioner of the work, Duke Ludovico, that creativity requires time for ideas to marinate and intuitions to gel. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least,” he explained, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.” Eventually in 1498, he did manage to finish The Last Supper and was rewarded with a nearby vineyard as a finishing bonus.

“There’s a wonderful quote when [Leonardo] was doing his Last Supper, when a friend wrote to a mutual friend in Florence saying, ‘Leonardo is …  sort of tut-tutting. Leonardo is not going to finish The Last Supper because whenever he should be painting, he is thinking about geometry, architecture, and anatomy.’
— Ross King, Art historian and bestselling author of The Fantasia of Leonardo da Vinci

3. Be curious, and observe everything.

Leonardo possessed endless wonder about how everything aroung him worked. We, too,  can each aspire to notice the details of the world around us and then create extraordinary things that help us make sense of that world. How else do we solve problems our customers didn’t even know they had? Among Leonardo’s many curiosities was the mystery of flight, and we are left with notebooks upon notebooks filled with his observations, including, “There are some birds that move their wings more swiftly when they lower them than when they raise them, and this is the case with doves. There are others which lower their wings more slowly than they raise them, and this is seen with crows.” Leonardo filled his notebook pages with drawings of man-powered mechanisms to flap a flying machine… which brings us to the next lesson.

“For Leonardo, the eye was the monarch of the senses. Observation was the way that you learned about the world around you. He was adamant that you didn’t learn about it exclusively through books. Books were important to him [but] he often denigrated book learning by saying that he was a disciple of experience.”
— Martin Kemp,  Emeritus art history professor at Oxford University

4. Indulge fantasy.

There are many lessons we can learn from Leonardo’s studies on flight, but perhaps least obvious, yet most inspirational, is the permission he gave himself to indulge fantasy. His many drawings and notes may not have produced a flying machine within his lifetime, but it allowed his imagination to soar. When his imaginations for a glider were rendered to his exact specifications for the television program, “Leonardo’s Dream Machines,” in the early 21st century, the final run went further than the Wright brothers had gone.

“It doesn’t mean to say Leonardo invented flight, but it meant he understood how, by studying birds and bats, you could arrive at a potential solution that was workable. He didn’t invent flight in [the] literal sense, but he knew where the answer lay. One of the great glories of Leonardo is not getting the answer right, but knowing where the answer might lie.”
— Martin Kemp, Emeritus art history professor at Oxford University

5. Be a bit of a rebel.

By the beginning of the 16th century, many people wanted portraits from Leonardo da Vinci, including Isabella d’Este, perhaps the greatest female ruler and art patron in Italy at the time. But by 1503, Leonardo could afford to be choosy with his commissions… and he chose not to indulge d’Este. Instead, he designated as his next subject the wife of a wool merchant in Florence. Why? Because he was no longer beholden to his patrons, and painting Lisa del Giocondo would give him freedom to experiment in ways d’Este would not have permitted.

“Leonardo was one of the less reliable [painters]… He left many of his works unfinished. We learn from his method… non-method. We learn that very often you should try… to break the given rules. If you are able to break those given rules, you may go beyond and open new doors also for other people in future generations.
— Marco Cianchi, Art history professor at CSU-IP-Florence and author of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Machines 

6. Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Of course, the wool merchant, Giocondo, would never receive the portrait of his wife, Lisa – Leonardo carried Mona Lisa with him from Milan to Rome to France, adding tiny strokes and light layers along the way. It was in his studio when he died. Leonardo knew that there were always improvements to be made to the painting, even if the audience would never consciously notice that they were there.

“You don’t try to just satisfy patrons or make as much money in the short term as possible. If you make great products, that’s how you’re going to succeed.”
—Walter Isaacson, Trailblazers host and author

7. Make connections.

In Leonardo’s time, there was no meaningful distinction between art and science. In our time, he could be considered both an Einstein and a Picasso. He constructed his own idea of the universe, one in which all the parts are related. For example, he would compare water to air or to the curls of a human being’s hair. Today, we see literal examples of the intersection of art and technology in how products are made to be both feats in engineering and beauty or how technology is used in music and art to tap into our human emotions. As we approach the new reality of human-machine partnerships impacting more and more of our daily lives, it is more critical than ever to connect technology and humanity.

“We call it interdisciplinary today, but it’s really figuring out ways in which ideas from different fields, from different domains, become relevant to others. And good ideas come from that interaction. I think we [have] arrived at such a specialized moment of knowledge that we feel acutely the need to return to a moment of exchange among fields that we call art and science today.”
— Francesca Fiorani, Social Dean for the Arts and Humanities at the University of Virginia

8. Fail spectacularly.

It’s well-known in Leonardo circles that the artist had a reputation for not finishing projects. Some say it’s because he set the ambitions for his art beyond what a painting could do. Others argue he simply got distracted.

But Leonardo’s failures go beyond incomplete projects. As art historian and author, Ross King, puts it, Leonardo is “the patron saint of failed job applications.” The early 1490s were a tough period for him – he made a model for a tribune for Milan’s cathedral, but he didn’t get the job. He was well qualified and desperately wanted to cast the bronze doors for the cathedral of Piacenza in northern Italy, yet he didn’t get that job either. Certainly some of the most successful business leaders of our time can relate to these failures.

But perhaps Leonardo’s most spectacular failure is in one of his greatest accomplishments, The Last Supper. Untrained in fresco painting, yet tasked with covering a wall that was 15 feet high by some 30 feet wide, Leonardo experimented by putting down a layer of lead white pigment, then working with a mixture of tempera and pigments mixed with eggs and a variety of oils.

After only twenty years – which was perhaps heartbreakingly during Leonardo’s lifetime – the paint began to flake, and it became evident that Leonardo’s experimental fresco technique was a disastrous failure. Yet, today, after six major attempts to preserve and restore The Last Supper, its beauty is undiminished.

“He finished the Mona Lisa, which is the world’s most famous painting. He finished The Last Supper, which probably is the world’s second most famous painting. He finished the Vitruvian Man, which is the world’s most famous drawing. And that’s not bad.
— Martin Kemp, Emeritus art history professor at Oxford University

Bridging Centuries

As artist Jeff Koons points out, Leonardo’s lasting value lies not just in his works, but also in what he teaches us today, “He shows us that our interests can be vast and we’re limited really to our own curiosity, our own resources and desire, passion for knowledge and if we do try to seek out information, try to find greater understanding, it will take us farther on a journey of having even, I think, greater curiosity and finding life more rewarding through the seekage of knowledge.”