When Walter Isaacson publishes a book, you would do well to read it. His previous books have included biographies of such disparate luminaries as Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin. My personal favorite Isaacson book is The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, which he co-authored with Evan Thomas. Isaacson has been the chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of CNN and the Managing Editor of Time. He is currently the President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

In October Isaacson will release his latest book, Leonardo Da Vinci. Isaacson used the theme of Da Vinci in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), entitled “The Lessons of Leonardo: How to be a Creative Genius”. It has several themes which every Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) should consider because as Isaacson noted, Da Vinci was not superhuman and as a mere mortal you can follow his methods yourself and achieve great intellectual rewards. The bottom line is while you may not have Da Vinci’s raw talent, we can all learn the skills he used “to put imagination to productive use.”

I podcast on business leadership in 12 O’Clock High and many of the lessons I have learned in researching for and producing that show are present in Isaacson’s observations on Da Vinci. This was perhaps the most singular revelation I took from the article. This means these lessons can be incorporated by all of us going forward.

Be curious about everything

Isaacson considered Da Vinci’s most distinctive trait was his “passionate, playful and occasionally obsessive curiosity.” He was curious about the high and low, the significant and seemingly innocuous and in a wide variety of fields. He studied such questions as “Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary, since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?” When studying the flight of birds he raised the following issue, “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.”

Finally there was no seeming constraint to Da Vinci’s areas of interest. Isaacson noted “Nor was Leonardo’s curiosity constrained by the distinctions we make today among different disciplines and fields. His mind wandered merrily across the arts, sciences, engineering and humanities. His knowledge of how light strikes the retina informed the perspective in “The Last Supper,” and a page of his anatomical drawings depicting the dissection of lips is topped by the first sketch of the Mona Lisa’s smile.”

Perhaps the most significant point raised by the author was that “He knew art was a science and that science was an art.” This final would seem the most significant to the compliance practitioner. Successful CCOs are not pigeon-holed into compliance by law but understand their position has a much broader remit; whether it is the ability to read a spreadsheet, intelligently talk about sales strategies in China or understand how compliance is a process not a set of rules to simply follow.

Putting it another way, if compliance officers are to explain the return on investment in a company from the compliance function, it cannot be accomplished by talking about compliance; CCOs can only accomplish it by talking about business. To be able to speak in sucha language, CCOs and compliance professionals must be curious.

Observe attentively

Da Vinci’s attention to detail is well-known; whether it be the four-wing flutter of dragonflies in the portrait of a lake at summer or the eddies formed by water flowing into a bowl. His method was straight-forward, to look separately at each object. Da Vinci advised to ““If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.” This course requires both “patience to process the observations and patterns.” By doing so you can gather all the facts, then let them simmer in your head before you come to a firm conclusion.”

To help you observe, Isaacson suggests you record your observations, which is something that Da Vinci is well-known for; his journals now being iconic. By jotting down your observations, you not only focus your attention but you can sometimes see patterns not readily apparent. Patrick Taylor calls this “seeing the patterns in raked leaves.” It can be a source of inspiration at numerous points in the creative process.

 Indulge fantasy

I admit I struggled with Isaacson’s title for this section. However I think it really means that you are only limited by your own imagination. Put another way, if you can imagine it, you have a shot at accomplishing it. Isaacson wrote, “Leonardo was a grown-up who never stopped indulging in the sort of fantasy and speculation that we now associate with childhood. There’s a lesson for us in that, amid all the practical demands of our modern lives. We, too, can try to imagine, as he did, how to divert a river, or build a human-powered flying machine, or square a circle using only a ruler and a compass. We are unlikely to solve these problems, but even by failing in the attempt we can stretch our imaginations.”

When you consider it in that light, it speaks directly to the CCO. As the compliance profession moves forward, CCOs and compliance practitioners are on the cutting edge of many disparate corporate disciplines; including compliance, law, audit, technology, Human Resources (HR) and others. Isaacson noted that “true innovators tend to be those like Leonardo who make no distinction between the beauties of the arts and the beauties of the sciences.” He went on to point to other geniuses who worked across seemingly disparate field. He wrote, “When Einstein was stymied in his pursuit of the field equations for general relativity, he would often pull out his violin and play Mozart. The music, he said, helped to connect him to the harmonies of our cosmos. At the end of many of his product presentations, Steve Jobs would display a slide that showed the intersection of streets labeled “Liberal Arts” and “Technology.” He knew that at such crossroads lay creativity.”

Isaacson concluded that the best reason to learn from Da Vinci is “to live a better life”. Many are attracted to the compliance profession because it is a just that makes a difference. It makes companies better and in large part makes the world better. We may not have the innate talent of Da Vinci but we can use the same techniques he used to make ourselves better, make our companies better and make this place better than how we found it. There is not a much better legacy.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2017