Thornton May: Renaissance lessons for modern CIOs

As an Asian studies undergraduate, I tended to avoid anything to do with Western civilization. This was because I thought everybody already knew everything there was to know about Europe, dead white males were not in vogue, and what there was to know wasn't that relevant to where the world was heading.

Now, having just returned from Florence, Italy, where I immersed myself in the rich history of premodern Europe, I recognize the error of my ways. The Renaissance, particularly the Italian Renaissance (the 14th to 16th centuries), has much to teach the modern CIO.

Before I discuss two of the most important lessons, let me note that IT people should be very comfortable with the term "Renaissance," and not just because IT is constantly being reborn. Coined by French historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874) and popularized by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, the word is polysemous -- that is, it possesses multiple meanings, as do many IT concepts, such as "big data" and "cloud."

Lesson 1: Celebrate Agency

What made the Dark Ages dark and what made the Middle Ages such a wonderful era to leave was the total lack of any sense of human agency. What is most exciting about the Renaissance is that it was the time when the upper echelons of society came to realize that they did not have to wait for someone else to solve their problems.

This sense of agency emanates from Michelangelo's famous statue David (1501-04). Crafted from a giant block of marble that other artists had abandoned as "unworkable," David presents the observer not with a king or a set piece of a biblical fairy tale but a modern man with a mission. Artists before Michelangelo portrayed the end of the David and Goliath story -- David with the giant's head cut off. In this masterpiece we see David anticipating the action ahead, thinking about what he is going to do. It is an embodiment of human agency, conceived by a young artist (Michelangelo was 29 when he finished the piece) seeing things differently than his forebears.

The message Michelangelo was sending to his fellow Florentines still holds for modern IT leaders: "We are David, and we need to get busy. We have to face our giants."

Lesson 2: An Elevated Status

Prior to Michelangelo (1475-1564), artists were viewed as subordinate members of society. They were perceived (and many perceived themselves) as being little more than day laborers. During the Renaissance, the status of artists (painters and sculptors in particular) was elevated from the bottom of the social pile to the top. This improvement in status is quite apparent in the arrangement of the "players" on the facade of the Duomo, the Cathedral of Florence. Artists are depicted below God but above the Virgin Mary. This differs significantly from the artistic narrative found on Gothic cathedrals. If humans appeared at all, they were depicted as small-scale figures and followed a rigid hierarchy: God, angels, saints, Jesus, Holy Mother, priests, kings, princes, donors, peasants.

In the Renaissance, creators were encouraged by patrons to think of themselves and their work as being at an intellectual and reputational level equivalent to that of the elite. The Renaissance lesson here is that CIOs (actually all IT practitioners) have to perceive themselves and be perceived as being at least the peers of other executives.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter (@deanitla).

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