Monday, December 20, 2004

"Renaissance Man" - "Renaissance Soul" defined

In the header to this White Rhino Report and in my Profile on the LinkedIn Network, ( I use the term "Renaissance Man." Margaret Lobenstine, in her upcoming book, uses the more inclusive term "Renaissance Soul." The terms are widely used, but I suspect each of us has our own personal definition and mental image of what it means to be a "Renaissance Man or Woman." I would like to share briefly my thoughts on common traits and characteristics that fall under this broad rubric.

A Renaissance Man, according to, is . . .

[n] a scholar during the Renaissance who (because knowledge was limited) could know almost everything about many topics
[n] a modern scholar who is in a position to acquire more than superficial knowledge about many different interests.

The American Heritage dicitonary offers this definition:

"A man who has broad intellectual interests and is accomplished in areas of both the arts and the sciences."

The following quotation from Shannon L. Duffy, Ph.D., helps to set the context for understanding the emergence of the "Renaissance Man":

The printing press helped make believable the highest ideal of the Renaissance: the "Renaissance Man" (or woman) who has achieved mastery all the fields of learning, and can do all things well. By the Renaissance, to be cultured, you would need to be versed in many intellectual and artistic disciples. The best example of the Renaissance ideals was Leonardo di Vinci, who was a painter, sculptor, and inventor, and was also interested in medicine and anatomy, and the physical science. The ideal Renaissance man was a master of art and literature, a scholar and inventor, as well as physically graceful and talented in all the social arts —he strove for perfection in man (as Michaelangelo's David sculpture was trying to represent the perfect human form).

One of my favorite characters in all of literature is Rostand's panache-sporting swordman, Cyrano de Bergerac. Self-confident to the point of being overbearing and cartoonish, Cyrano personifies the Renaissance Man ideals. In describing his philosophy of life to one of his comrades, he makes the following outrageous statement: "I have decided to excel at everything"

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are widely considered to be early American examples of Renaissance Men. They both excelled in an astonishly broad variety of fields and areas of interest.

I first learned of the concept of "Renaissance Man" when Valleau Wilkie, Jr., headmaster of Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, MA used the term in presenting me a prize at commencement (back in the days when dinosaurs still roamed the earth!). I took his use of the term as a personal challenge to continue to develop in as many dimensions as I possibly could.

In this era of increasing dependence on specialization in the business world, those of us who intentionally choose to develop as "Generalists" often find ourselves in danger of being misunderstood, marginalized or under-valued as anachronistic throwbacks to a quaint and bygone era. For this reason, I am convinced of the importance of "Renaissance Souls" finding one another and offering encouragement to each other to become all that we were meant to be. This vision informs my approach to recruiting. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction when I am able to find a client company led by visionary women and men who value a broad-based approach to leadership, and to be able to present to them candidates who are multi-faceted and extraordinarily gifted "Renaissance Souls" eager to help bring the company to new heights.

It is my hope that 2005 may usher in a rebirth of apprecation of the value and the role of "Renaissance Souls."

As always, I look forward to your comments.


Devo said...

I completely agree with you, Al, in your assertion that the modern Renaissance Soul is an important part of today's corporate landscape as well as today's social landscape. However, do you honestly think that in our fractured world of specialization and industry-oriented jargon a Renaissance Soul can truly find a niche?

I mean, a key ingredient in competent management is building bridges between disparate parties, and ostensibly being able to effectively communicate with all parties involved, but it seems to me that it's rare to find a true Renaissance Soul in this type of a position. Of course, I'm a bit naive in this regard, so i could be just a bit off base. However, I do fancy myself a bit of a Renaissance Soul myself, so I certainly support your quest to bring us together...

The White Rhino said...

If I did not believe that there is a place for Renaissance Souls in the business world, I would walk away from my job today.

I agree with your assessment that it takes a special kind of person to be able to build bridges among disparate interest groups speaking different languages. The kinds of people I encounter who are leaders with these kinds of skills are rare, but they do exist, and my challenge is to find them and help them to find companies where their unique skills will be celebrated and fully deployed. We are talking about companies and candidates who are at least two standard deviations above the norm in terms of vision for leadership and sophistication of communication, but they do exist on the far fringes of the Bell Curve, where it is often lonely!

To use a metaphor form the world of software, I see these men and women functioning as "human middleware" - connecting and communicating among groups of people who do not speak the same language or even use the same "operating system."