I occasionally visit art museums with family and friends, but I’m not very good company. My enthusiasms get the better of me and I become a tad, well, pedantic. I might go on about the difference between impressionism and neo-impressionism, or talk at length about why the paint in Mark Rothko’s paintings is decomposing, or something equally meaningless to most people. In short, I’m a bore.
But what I really love is to wander by myself through unoccupied museum galleries on quiet weekday mornings. Then, I can contemplate a painting for as long as I wish, with no one complaining about tired feet or wanting a snack. As I meander, my thoughts do too. At times I can connect what I’m viewing to the topic of organizational leadership, a subject I’m equally passionate about.
The Frick Museum in New York is my favorite. It’s an old friend who never seems to change despite the decades. But recently I had a most extraordinary experience there: a painting I have seen many times grabbed me as if I’d never seen it before, and I couldn’t tear myself away.
Monet painted Vetheuil in Winter from the vantage point of a boat on the Seine overlooking a small seaside village rising into the hills. On the shore two indistinct figures seem to be waiting for a few small boats to return, their oars struggling against blue-white ice floes. Muted light glitters from the snow on the beach and from the tile roofs, reflecting the late afternoon sky.
I stood mesmerized. Monet’s palette of blue, white and grey expressed emotions that I could not at first identify. But the longer I regarded the picture, the lonelier I felt; I even shivered from cold spreading up my arms. I couldn’t imagine what led him to paint something so devoid of warmth. I had to find out. So I wiki-ed…
… And learned that 1879 was terribly desolate time of Monet’s life. His young wife Camille, who was also his muse and only model, had recently died, leaving behind two very young sons. He was also having difficulty selling paintings; his financial trouble at this time was extreme. In Vetheuil he stayed at the house of a rich patron, one of few people at the time who understood the genius of his work.
That’s when I got it! By understanding the context in which he painted Vetheuil in Winter, I could relate to Monet’s feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. Like most of us, I have experienced these same feelings before in my life, and his painting returned me to that aching feeling of loss. I was amazed that even across the centuries, Monet’s painting had the power to infiltrate me at so deep a level. Yet, paradoxically, his sad painting made me happy.
What has this to do with leadership? A lot. Every day, leaders interact with people without knowing much of their backgrounds, and we rarely pause to find out more. It’s as if we are moving quickly through a museum but not focusing on any of the portraits.
Without a richer, deeper connection to people, how can we expect to inspire them, or become catalysts for their great performance? It’s funny, sometimes when I hear people use the term ‘human resources’ it sounds a lot like ‘human racehorses.’
We are rushing headlong into 2015. This year, I intend to be more conscientious and mindful of the back-stories of people with whom I am working. I’ll try to put ‘my head on their shoulders’ so I can understand their feelings and circumstances. I don’t want to sleepwalk through the museum of life. I would rather dignify those around me with richer observation and empathy. My hope is we all do the same.
As the great organizational consultant Theodore Roosevelt said, “people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
Permission to use graphic was granted by the Frick Museum. Copyright -The Frick Collection.