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The business world needs more Leonardo da Vincis

Growth-minded leaders at all levels of a company should adopt a learning growth mindset, just like the famous polymath.

The business world needs more Leonardo da Vincis
[Image: Wikimedia Commons]
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Leonardo da Vinci was both “whole-brain” and a humanist: a left-brain analytical scientist, a right-brain creative artist, and an individual profoundly empathetic toward humans and his natural environment. The recent health and inequality crises demonstrate that business can play an essential role in addressing the world’s challenges, and indeed, even before the spread of COVID-19, many corporations pledged to move away from focusing solely on maximizing shareholder profits in favor of a multi-stakeholder growth orientation. This humanizing growth shift presents an opportunity for leaders to step up and champion what we call “real growth”—sustained, long-term, inclusive growth—as the new normal.

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Our nonprofit organization, the Institute for Real Growth, recently conducted a study with 550 senior marketers and other leaders to identify the characteristics required to become a da Vinci-like leader. We identified three most critical characteristics: Strong left-brain analytical skills to decode the world; excellent right-brain creative capabilities to tell inspiring stories; empathy to connect and collaborate.

Decoding the world

Companies that outperform in sustainable growth, which we define as companies that have grown revenue faster than their direct competition for the last three years, have a better understanding of the world around them. Our research finds that 85% of these outperformers are good or excellent in “assessing and understanding market developments.” The most successful growth leaders bring a left-brain analytical and rigorous approach to market research and data. They also understand that it takes human empathy to unlock genuine insights and understanding, the “why” behind the data (more on empathy in a minute). They often serve as their companies’ windows to the outside world, gathering information about consumer and market developments and interpreting the information for colleagues.

To play this role, leaders display a da Vinci-like curiosity. These are the people you know that are always interested in speaking to everyone, and forever asking “why?” “I listen to at least one podcast a day,” says Norman de Greve, chief marketing officer of CVS Health. “The podcast subjects vary widely, from purposeful branding to scientific discovery and even meditation.” CEO Satya Nadella transformed Microsoft’s culture by encouraging everyone in the company to adopt what he called a “growth mindset.”

Connectivity and collaboration

The best growth companies excel at breaking down silos and collaborating internally and externally. Nearly three-quarters of companies we define as outperformers in the IRG research have robust external connections, visiting conferences, partnering with new players, learning from organizations outside their traditional industry. The best performing individuals lead by example; they are naturally collaborative, working across disciplines to foster understanding, respect, creativity, and innovation. Every time Silvia Lagnado, the newly appointed sustainable growth officer of Brazilian Beauty Company Natura & Co lands a new job, the first six months are focused on learning from colleagues from every geography and discipline. “I do best when I get to first ask many questions.” The IRG study data is also conclusive on the value of diversity at the strategic decision-making level—including multiple perspectives improves the outcome of any complex task. This requires empathy, setting aside one’s ego and demonstrating a genuine interest in what other parties believe to be necessary—in the same way. Kirsten Allegri Williams, the CMO of digital experience platform Episerver, believes that one of the biggest challenges facing marketers today is how to connect the generated insights about individuals with the products and services they are subsequently offered online. As companies evolve their offerings from product to service to personalized experiences, their organizations will need to flex further into expanding ecosystems. Effective collaborating will become an essential characteristic of success.

Inspiring storytelling

Real growth leaders know how to enroll colleagues in their plan and even create a movement. They know how to inspire colleagues and partners around a vision and win their support and participation on the journey. Doing this well is not about playing politics, but rather about understanding your stakeholders, what motivates and worries them, and demonstrating a willingness to walk in their shoes to maximize impact. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. “Inspiration is funny like that—not everyone responds in the same way, so you really have to know your audience,” says Stacie Henderson, head of e-commerce and consumer experience at Tod’s Group.

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Stan Sthanunathan, head of consumer and market insights at Unilever, once famously showed the company’s executive committee a photograph of a crowded street and asked his audience where in the world they believed the picture was taken. Guesses from around the room alternated between India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but they were all significantly off their mark. It was a picture of London’s Edgware Road, today a place with a predominantly Indian population, not far from the office they were sitting in. He landed the point that to sell food to local consumers, you need to understand what’s happening all around you. Stan could have just shown his leaders a data chart or quizzed them on demographics. Instead, he made a permanent impression on his colleagues with his mastery in storytelling.

Stepping up to leadership in the new normal

If you can manage to keep an eye out on the world and how it is continuously shifting, connect and collaborate without letting your ego get in the way, and convince others to join your parade through inspiring storytelling, there is an opportunity to make a real difference.

The da Vinci growth profile offers growth leaders a clear path forward in helping their companies flourish, as well as future-proofing their own role by prioritizing a more human-centric and multi-stakeholder approach to business.


Eva Linderborg, Frank van den Driest, and Marc de Swaan Arons are part of the Institute for Real Growth (IRG), a nonprofit organization supported by WPP, Google, Facebook, Kantar, LinkedIn, Spencer Stuart, The Exetor Group, the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, and the New York University School of Professional Studies. For more information about the Da Vinci Growth Profile and the IRG programs please visit the institute’s website