Handling Criticism the Michelangelo Way

December 28, 2011
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I had a chance to visit Florence, Italy earlier this month and visited the Galleria dell’Accademia Museum, the home of Michelangelo’s David. The presentation of David was captivating and awe-inspiring. The famous sculpture contained such incredible detail and every chisel and angle contributed to the exact message that the artist wanted to convey. It just worked on so many levels.

I had a chance to visit Florence, Italy earlier this month and visited the Galleria dell’Accademia Museum, the home of Michelangelo’s David. The presentation of David was captivating and awe-inspiring. The famous sculpture contained such incredible detail and every chisel and angle contributed to the exact message that the artist wanted to convey. It just worked on so many levels.

As I sat there, I remembered some of the backstory of David. The piece of marble was deemed of very high quality and for a long time awaited its artist and its ultimate use. Eventually, the job landed with Michelangelo and the target was determined to be a young, naked David from the Bible about to go into battle.

Michelangelo preferred to do his work in private and even shielded himself during David to avoid any would-be onlookers. Then one day well into the final product, along came Piero Soderini, an official of some sort who was a sponsor of the work. Soderini, the story goes, commented that the “nose was too thick.” We’d like to think Michelangelo would know better than Soderini about this and that the nose was not really “too thick.” However, it put Michelangelo in a dilemma.

He situated Soderini in a position where he could not see what he was doing very well and proceeded to clank the chisel a few times, although not on the statue, creating the requisite dust. He then asked Soderini how it looked. Soderini is reported to have said that those touches that he asked for really “put life into” David.

The usual feisty Michelangelo had to summon more than his artistic talent to create the perfect David. He had to keep Soderini from ruining perfection! Yet the input of Soderini, as the sponsor and payer, required a response. Michelangelo did this masterfully as well. How many of us respond equally masterfully when bosses, sponsors and stakeholders provide input to our work? I’ve seen heels get dug in over the smallest critique. I’ve seen enormous efforts gone to by project teams to “educate” stakeholders over to their way of doing things when all the stakeholder was looking for was a little respect and maybe a fingerprint or two on the production.

Project stakeholders are our lifeblood. Sometimes we can pacify the input. Was Soderini worse off for having his input not really accounted for in David? Not at all. And Michelangelo told no one until Soderini was well out of power and it would not embarrass him.

Like Steve Jobs once famously said, “real artists ship.” Michelangelo shipped perfection and he shipped a happy sponsor!