Sfumato – “Going up in Smoke’ : A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty

The smile that caught the collective fancy of nations, artists and scholars alike. A smile that is warm but seems to turn melancholic in the blink of an eye. For over 500 years people have been staring at this painting by Leonardo Da Vinci with a sense of bafflement, unable to understand or interpret the expression. People have wondered how Da Vinci was able to create this mysterious expression, where one can’t tell if the lady in the painting is happy or sad. They have also wondered why no other painter has been able to replicate the same.

The incandescent, velvet voice of Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” croons softly in the background as I write this. A great piece of art immortalized in a timeless soundtrack, by a legendary singer, remains to date one of my most loved songs.

“Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa
Men have named you.
You’re so like the Lady
With the mystic smile”

The Italians have a name for the technique used in this painting- Sfumato – which when translated literally from Italian means “vanished or evaporated – like smoke.”. In painting, Sfumato is defined as smoked: noting a style of painting wherein the tints are so blended that outlines are scarcely perceptible, the effect of the whole being indistinct or misty. In this technique, Da Vinci used several layers of paint to create imperceptible transitions between colours, light and shade, and blended everything “without borders, in the manner of smoke,” his brush strokes so subtle that they are invisible to the naked eye.

Studies of Leonardo Da Vinci’s art over the course of his artistic life reveals that in his early work, Leonardo tends toward sharpness, However over the years, with intense study of proportion, perspective in drawing and its relationship with light and shadow, we can observe an increasing tendency towards blurriness achieved with sfumato, a technique that became Leonardo’s trademark.

Da Vinci embraced Sfumato, the technique of creating ambiguity and a smoky blurred effect to create a masterpiece. This technique really seemed to only be an extension of his everyday self. Da Vinci was fascinated by the unknown. It formed the very backbone of his existence. He was on an endless quest to understand, interpret and make inferences from studying the unknown. His remarkable ability to welcome sfumato and embrace paradoxes and ambiguity, fuelled his curiosity and prepared the ground for unbridled new ways of thinking which led to inventions and discoveries that were centuries ahead of his time.

Sfumato is one of the 7 principles of Da Vinci as exalted by Michael Gelb in this international best seller “How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day.” Michael Gelb gives all aspiring Leaders insights into how we can apply Da Vinci’s techniques and life lessons, to become more effective and inspiring leaders.

As we have seen with Da Vinci, Sharpness was typically what he mastered at the early stages of his artistic career while blurriness was the priority at the end. Likewise, the more senior your position within the organization the lesser you are presented with crystal clear situations. Ambiguity is what you will need to learn to cope with.

Like Da Vinci, as leaders we must embrace Sfumato – ambiguity and the smoke screen. Most people like the comfort the constructs of the binary offer – yes and no, black and white, right and wrong. But the ever dynamic business world of today thrives on what lies in between. In this VUCA world, the seed of a business decision must be sown, often without the comforts of complete data and without the guarantees of desired outcomes. This seed takes in the various environmental and physical inputs and if conditions are favourable, it may sprout and stem and sustain to yield a tree of success or may wither as a seed, sampling or a young plant. There is no telling. Our interconnected world creates several variables and creates ambiguity. Ambiguity creates complexity and in turn makes it difficult to make decisions. Ambiguity creates uncertainty and stress.

Navigating ambiguity in a large set up cannot be easy. Even the most seasoned leaders are faced with self doubt when venturing into unchartered waters. Yet we must forge ahead despite the fears. Effective leaders recognize the opportunities that increased ambiguity provides in the areas of collaboration, agility and inclusion. They develop skills to push beyond their own fears. In order to cope with ambiguity we must also build flexibility, develop confidence and let go the urge to control every situation. We must learn from wrong decisions and harness the collective intellect of our teams, teach and be taught to and ask all the right questions and strive for clarity when there is none.

Nat king Cole Sings
“Are you warm?
Are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely,
Lovely piece or art? ”

You won’t always know the answers- but embrace the unknown and you just may be able to turn it into a timeless song.