Less than two months ago, I wrote an article for CEOWORLD magazine titled Go team!, highlighting Sir Dave Brailsford’s work as CEO of the INEOS 1:59 Challenge as a masterclass in team leadership. Since then I have explored other outstanding teams from a variety of backgrounds – everything from Formula 1 crews and the Blue Angels to medical trauma teams and top performing organizations in sport and business. A look at how these teams work offers a window into why they operate at such a high level and what we can learn from studying them.
More art than science
This latest deep dive into successful teams inspired me to reflect on one of my favorite works of art – a sculpture you’ll find in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Like it was yesterday, I remember seeing it for the first time in the fall of 2016. While walking through the museum with my daughter, I noticed The veiled nun from afar, her head seemed covered with a translucent veil. As I approached, I realized there was nothing draped over the bust; everything was marble. I couldn’t help but be mesmerized, trying to imagine how the sculptor achieved such breathtaking effect. I then looked up the plaque to find out who carved this masterpiece, and it read “Italian.” How is it possible ? Wouldn’t it be sad for someone not to be credited with such magnificent work? It turns out that the story behind this incredible gift to the world involved an extraordinary example of teamwork, which is why it came to mind.
Bought in March 1863 in Rome by William Wilson Corcoran [1798-1888], The veiled nun was donated to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1873 and then acquired by the National Gallery of Art (2014). It was supposed to be the work of Giuseppe Croff. Experts have since agreed that it was created in a commercial workshop in Rome, making it unlikely that we will ever know the name of the sculptor(s). This is where it gets interesting, as Lisa Strong, then Head of Curatorial Affairs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, tells the story:
It is a little known fact that sculpture from this period was produced by a designer (the artist who signs the piece) and a craftsman who actually carved the piece out of marble. The artist would have designed the sculpture in plaster or wax and then submitted this model to the studio for production. The studio work was specialized, so there would have been a craftsman to select and roughen the block of marble and to confirm that there were no flaws in the stone. Then another craftsman used a mechanism called a pointing device to drill into the block and match the contours of the plaster model. Yet another artisan sculpted the face, followed by specialists in hair, eyes, etc., and a final artisan who polished the surface. This system of commercial production was the same whether a workshop produced a signed sculpture under the direction of an artist or a copy of an antique or 18th century design.
Strong goes on to say:
Once Corcoran returned to Washington, D.C., and exhibited The Veiled Nun in his home, he received only occasional mention from visitors. Likewise, its display in the first Corcoran building (now the Renwick) in a niche in the rotunda, has elicited little comment. This may be because The Veiled Nun would have been a fairly familiar subject to Victorian audiences accustomed to virtuoso sculptural techniques. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, long after the taste for realistic sculpture had changed and the market for veiled busts had evaporated, that the public began to take notice. In 1969, when Readers Digest approached the Corcoran with a request for their audience’s favorite piece, The Veiled Nun was an easy answer. It was firmly established as one of Washington’s most beloved works of art, and it remains one of the most popular today.
Ask anyone to tell you about the best teams they’ve been on and what made them so great, and you’ll hear common themes. Answers will likely include how they trusted each other, communicated clearly, supported each other, were accountable to teammates, had good leadership, etc. Interestingly, most people will only be able to name one or two teams in their lifetime worthy of such praise. When they describe their personal involvement, however, they do so with an enthusiasm that recalls how remarkable such experiences are and how rare they are. People like to identify with being part of a winning team and the success that goes with it.
That said, we can be so focused on the goal (winning) that we lose sight of the process and the people who make achieving such a goal possible. As a result, we don’t spend enough time working as a team. Knowing what to do is one thing; assembling a collection of human beings aligned by a common goal, committed to excellence, and to each other serves as a higher bar – more art than science. The more intentional we are in this regard, the more gifts we can give to the world.
Written by Leo Bottary.
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