The Vitruvian Leader: How to Square the Circle in a Complicated World
I am honored to be with you today as your dean as we celebrate your success at commencement. Let me start by saying that I love you guys. You are the class that started in infamous August 2017 in Charlottesville… but persevered. You are the class that just last month brought down the house in the Abbott Center as UVA won the national basketball championship. You are winners!
Recently, your faculty marshal, Lalin Anik, asked me, “How do you measure success at Darden?” I have always said that I measure success by the success of others. As I look at you today, I think success is the extent to which each of you, a graduate of the Class of 2019, will achieve your full potential. Lalin: from where I stand, THIS is a good example of what success looks like at Darden!
Over the next few minutes, I’m going to reflect on what it means to achieve your full potential. And then I am going to introduce a model of leadership and share four levers to consider for success.
At Darden, our mission is to improve the world by inspiring responsible leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences.
So, what does a responsible leader in our complicated world look like today? And how do you, as you head into the world, become one?
Today, I would like to introduce an image, a metaphor, a concept for the responsible leader: the Vitruvian leader of the 21st century.
OK, I see your furrowed brows under your caps: “Alright, Dean Beardsley, exactly what is a Vitruvian leader?”
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was born in 80 BC. He was an engineer in the Roman army, specialized in machine design and wrote one of the most important early books on architecture. Vitruvius offered insights on how the magical, symmetrical proportions of the human body should influence the design of buildings. He strove to understand how human existence fits into the world.
Vitruvius described — but interestingly did not draw — the concept of putting a human in a circle and a square to determine the ideal proportion of a temple. More than fifteen dark centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci and others rediscovered Vitruvius’ writings during the Enlightenment. It resulted in one of the world’s most famous drawings: Da Vinci’s “The Vitruvian Man.” How many of you know that drawing, of a human inside a square and a circle? You can google it, if you don’t find human anatomy offensive. It’s also on the cover of National Geographic.
Squaring the circle was an ancient geometry challenge: to create a square with the same area as a circle using only a ruler and a compass in a finite series of steps. This ancient math riddle stumped generations of brilliant thinkers, from Hippocrates to Archimedes. Da Vinci was fascinated by squaring the circle, and he continually — but unsuccessfully — attempted to square the circle in his codex journals.
His Vitruvian human drawing has an even more profound meaning. In a sense, mankind was and is at the center of competing forces symbolized by squaring the circle. Da Vinci scholar and UVA grad Toby Lester, who wrote about the drawing, explained, “It embodies a timeless human hope: that we just might have the power of mind to figure out how we fit into the grand scheme of things.”
In Da Vinci’s famous drawing, the Vitruvian human is perfectly balanced. The height is the length of the outspread arms. The measurement of a hand is one-tenth of height. The drawing circles the square to achieve perfect stability and balance. The circle is squared. The areas are the same.
By now, many of you are probably saying, “Come on, Dean Beardsley. Darden is a business school, not an art school. It was a late night and early morning, so what does this drawing have to do with me?”
In short: You, as a leader in the 21st century, are metaphorically the human in the circle and the square.
Today’s leaders — you — are asked to square the circle. You are asked to achieve perfect balance in an imperfect world with forces that pull you in different directions. As the person in the middle, as a leader, you are exposed and vulnerable, standing at the intersection of your individuality and the world’s context and constraints.
We live in a society of contradictions, in which a 140-character tweet can be a missile. A world in which people are divided and pigeonholed by their backgrounds, origins, status or beliefs; and differences underlined — like the small part of the square outside the circle. Yet we share a common humanity and need to work together — the far bigger and overlooked overlap between the square and the circle.
We live in impatient times, when many expect instant gratification and to resolve problems with the click of a button. Silence, fact-gathering and reflection, while admired by some, are vilified by others as indifference or tacit approval.
The world today is full of tensions. How you respond as a leader can stabilize or destabilize your equilibrium.
To excel in this environment, you will need to understand the levers that you have in your control. You will need to square the circle of your personal life and professional life.
You have a lot to balance. You will need to use a telescope to consider the long term while keeping a microscope on the short term. You will need to consider serving others over personal glory. Right brain versus left. Plowing through the mundane while remaining curious. Contemplating how to bring people together while allowing for individuality.
Da Vinci’s drawing is sometimes called “The Canon of Proportions,” according to Walter Isaacson. Great leaders come to know the proportion to give the various facets of their lives. How to reconcile many opposites.
So how can you square the circle and be a successful Vitruvian leader?
Levers for Vitruvian Leadership
I see four primary levers. They are: habits, environments, curiosity and mindset.
Let’s start with habits.
What do you do and when do you do it? Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is a habit.” What are the things that take up most of your life? I would say the biggest and most important habits are the acronym SWEET: sleep, work, eat, exercise and technology. Throughout my life, I have been amazed to see how these habits form the basis for either long-term success or failure, often related to health.
Here are a few observations:
- On sleep, do you get 7–8 hours of quality sleep a night, which can be a game changer for improving your productivity and happiness?
- On work, work hard, but remember that work will expand to fill the time you give it. What limits will you place, and how will you block time to think and recharge?
- On eating and exercise, they will be a constant struggle as you attempt to be superhuman. Do you hydrate? What do you eat, and when and how do you exercise? Problem solve for both.
- And for the “T” — technology — master it’s power but be wary of addiction. I increasingly observe that WIFI has aggressively moved its way onto the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Don’t let technology rule you and prevent you from being in the moment. How do you feel about Alexa and Siri knowing and recording everything you say?
Remember, habits are SWEET.
After habits, the second lever is environments — the who and where. Where do you live and with whom? Who do you spend your time with? Who are the sponsors you will recruit? From which cultures are you learning? People, relationships, geography, culture – they all matter enormously, and you have choices.
After habits and environment, the third lever is curiosity. Einstein said, “I have no special talents. I am just passionately curious.” You have learned at Darden to be a critical thinker. Where will you get your information? What will you read? How will you open yourself to other points of view, avoid the echo chamber and de-bias yourself? Will you build a team and organization that allows dissent? Be a lifelong learner.
With habits, environment and curiosity, the final lever is mindset. A leadership mindset starts with the power of framing. You have what I call BFD: the Big Freedom to Decide. You determine your approach to leadership. You decide if you will view life and its ups and downs as opportunities to develop, or unfair setbacks. You decide if you will be values-driven and responsible. You decide if you will see and harness the talent of others. Will you surround yourself with the best people possible to bring out your best possible self or be a big fish in a little pond? Winners have a growth mindset.
Square the Circle
On this very special day, let me conclude.
Today, you are taking a critical step in your journey to achieve your full potential. I commend you.
As a leader in this world, you will be asked to square the circle — to find balance across manifold and contradicting dimensions. Society will ask that you be a Vitruvian leader with perfect equilibrium. At times you may feel lonely, naked, constrained.
It won’t be easy. Contradictions and conflicting, polarizing forces will try to destabilize you. Your energy will be tested.
But the world needs responsible leaders. Business — you — can be a force for good. Darden has prepared you.
To help you achieve your full potential as you attempt to square the circle of life, four levers can help you: SWEET habits, a productive environment, curiosity and a growth mindset.
Remember that your goal here is that your human existence fits into the world in the way that you want it to. This will lead to happiness.
Leonardo da Vinci spent 30 years of his life painting the “Mona Lisa.” It was his canvas for life, and he never gave up. He never sold it. I hope you will never sell out. Your life canvas is yours to paint. What will be your masterpiece?
On this special day, I wish you Da Vinci’s curiosity, Aristotelean habits for excellence, and the Vitruvian Man’s balance.
They are ALL within your reach.
I will leave you with a 137-character tweet:
Go make the world a better place, in the way you want to. And in doing, so may you achieve your full potential. #WhyDarden. Class of 2019!