I saw Young Rembrandt, an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I was treating myself to a break away, braving covid-19 security measures and actually mixing with real people for a change. It was looking at the exhibition, showing up Rembrandt’s failures as well as his successes that led me to ponder about the lessons he could give to modern day business leaders. Taking time to think I came up with 5 valuable lessons that stand the test of time.
1. Build on your strengths
Undoubtedly Rembrandt had a natural talent for drawing. His sketches and etchings at the age of 18 were breath-taking in their detail and ability to capture a moment in a few strokes. There were flaws too however and not satisfied he continually experimented so that in just a few short years he resolved those weaknesses. He knew what he needed to do to develop his strengths and single-mindedly went about it. A business leader too needs to know their signature strengths and how they can use them to progress their thoughts and plans. Equally, acknowledging your flaws and working to rectify those, or to find others who can compliment your strengths is essential for good leadership. This artist recognised the power of harnessing your talent and supplementing them in order to be the best in a competitive market.
2. Show your EQ
We’re used to seeing Rembrandt’s works of old men and women, sombre in their dark clothing, yet in these early etchings and paintings you could see the humour within him. A jaunty smile, a comedic pose in the crowd, an outrageous hat. Shown alongside works with the same theme by his salon ‘buddy’ you could also see Rembrandt's ability to tell a story – to add context, excitement, drama and inspire the viewer. In these perilous times excellent leaders also need to demonstrate their EQ levels and to focus on developing them to a high degree. Gone are the days when your level of professionalism is all that is required to be a success; an ability to connect with people is now paramount. Rembrandt knew how to connect. Do you?
3. Harness your resources
Rembrandt had plenty of free imagery all around him – the people and environment which surrounded him gave him a wealth of material. However he worked in a medium where physical materials were expensive and so utilised every spare centimetre of copper plate, using and reusing, to get the best value for money. Today’s leaders are up against it economically. With the global pandemic profit margins are falling, shareholder returns are not holding up. Leaders need to be able to see where scarce resources can be used wisely and to best effect. Materials yes, but also the workforce – the most expensive and yet most valuable long-term resource available.
4. Build your team
He shared a studio with a fellow painter, perhaps as technically good as Rembrandt but who did not produce the same drama and excitement in his depiction of the imagery. It meant though that Rembrandt had someone with whom he could share ideas and who could motivate him to improve his skills. Likewise as his drawings became more complex his technical ability to produce the etchings lagged behind so he teamed up with an expert in etching, learnt from him until he too could produce the copper work to the level required. It’s long been known that a leader is only as good as the team around them and your ability to recognise the strengths in others, their skills and potential to give value to the work that you intend to do is essential. Then to maintain that team, using high levels of EQ, so that collectively you can all rise to the challenge.
5. Scanning the horizon
This is perhaps the lesser known attribute that made Rembrandt so successful. Yes, he had the skills and abilities but without understanding his customers he would not have been as successful as he was. He knew there was a market for thumbnail etchings of ordinary scenes and used the free resources of his environment and careful use of expensive materials to ‘mass’ produce etchings that would be popular. By the age of 28 he was training other young painters in his studio so that they could produce the ‘bread and butter’ works to keep a steady flow of income whilst he could concentrate on the high net worth commissions which reinforced his brand. He adjusted his product and service to suit the changing demographics and politics of the era – and of Europe. Leaders today, and certainly post Brexit, must continually scan the horizon so they can understand the fluctuations in their customer base, have the right product or service and be supremely flexible and agile in delivering to a changing market.
So, I went to this exhibition to see the outputs of an acclaimed artist and came away with a supreme sense of his business acumen. An acumen which holds just as true for today’s aspiring and existing leaders. I wonder how many other lessons Rembrandt has for us?
Laura Murphy blogs about things that interest her. They might not interest you but read them anyway. It might even change your mind.