Rembrandt and Leadership

Guest post by William F. Baker & Evan Leatherwood:
In addition to being a great painting, Rembrandt’s “Head of Christ,” reveals two traits that great leaders and great artists share: the willingness to persist past the initial round of success and failure in life, and the courage to find a true mission and serve it.

Rembrandt painted the “Head of Christ” in about 1649, in the middle of the most prolific and also the most brutal period of his life. From 1635 to 1660, he endured the death of his wife and three sons, and a long slow descent from wealth to poverty. But as his sufferings became greater, so did his paintings. The works of Rembrandt’s final quarter century, made in terrible adversity, are universally considered the best of his career.

Rembrandt’s genius came only with maturity. It was not until he was in his late 30s that he even started painting in a style different from his peers. He had long been known as the most technically skilled painter of his generation, but it was only after being seasoned by success and (perhaps more important) failure that his full talent emerged. When he painted the “Head of Christ,” Rembrandt was forty-three, already an old man by the standards of the 1600s. Had he allowed himself to coast on his previous success, or be crippled by his private suffering, he would never have had the chance to do his best work.

Like great artists, great leaders change and mature over time. As students of leadership, we find that the most powerful lessons come from mature leaders. They have learned how to cope with both failure and success. Their experience with employees is long and deep. And they have at some point understood that no leader emerges from youth with a perfect record.

The “Head of Christ” embodies another quality great leaders and great artists share: authenticity. Rather than depict Jesus with an idealized northern European face, as his contemporaries did, Rembrandt found a young Sephardic Jew from an Amsterdam ghetto and used him as a model.

Truly effective leadership is built on this kind of authenticity. If you strive only for commercial success, you are not striving for enough. In fact, you are probably holding yourself back.

Leaders that make their companies great are driven by an authentic sense of mission, not just a demand for mere competence. There are many missions that can drive a company: providing the best customer service, guarding the safety of consumers, offering reliable news and information, making the best hot dog—take your pick. The gravity of the mission doesn’t matter. For a leader, the most important thing is to share a company’s mission with the employees. Malaise, lack of focus, and all the other chronic problems that make being a manager so hard can be swept away by a sense of mission, held authentically and shared effectively.

So even if your work is not what is traditionally called creative, lifelong persistence and an authentic sense of mission can help turn your company or your career into a masterpiece.

About the authors:
William F. Baker is President Emeritus of WNET-Thirteen, New York’s PBS station, and co-author of Every Leader is an Artist, out this month from McGraw-Hill. Evan Leatherwood is a freelance writer.