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How can we learn creativity from Leonardo da Vinci to design intercultural programs?

Exactly five centuries ago the world lost one of the most impactful universal geniuses, who vastly enriched humanity with his ideas and extraordinary imagination – Leonardo da Vinci. As Giorgio Vasari wrote about Leonardo in “The Lives of the Artists”, “Heaven sometimes sends us beings who represent not humanity alone but divinity itself, so that taking them as our models and imitating them, our minds and the best of our intelligence may approach the highest celestial spheres”.  

Leonardo owed his overwhelming artistic and scientific development and the power to inspire future generations to his interdisciplinary approach, his curiosity and his courage to think out of box and experiment. 

What can we learn from Leonardo to apply more creativity while designing intercultural programs? 

Let us start with the greatest challenge we encounter nowadays. When faced with a problem, our minds tend to follow thinking and behaving patterns based on our experience and previous knowledge. This attitude limits our ability to search for innovative ideas and apply creative solutions.  We cannot solve problems of tomorrow with solutions from yesterday, though. Having impact as intercultural practitioners lies in seeing the potential to change your clients’ lives even if all you can see are challenges how to make enrichment through cultural diversity tangible, accessible and simply visible to them. 

I invite you to apply ten of Leonardo’s greatest strengths to design intercultural programs aiming to enhance learning across cultures and intercultural sensitivity development.

A. ART & SCIENCE BALANCE 

“Those who become enamored of the art, without having previously applied to the diligent study of the scientific part of it, may be compared to sailors who use their ship without a rudder or compass and therefore cannot be certain of arriving at the wished harbor.’’ Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo searched for knowledge and explanation of the surrounding phenomena by using his right creative brain and the left hemisphere responsible for logical, analytical thinking. He always combined art with science and his unique diaries can be considered the prototype of mind maps.

As an intercultural practitioner you can mingle creative methods with scientific models and theories to enhance intercultural learning. Addressing both hemispheres of the brain is very important to the learning process. Consider applying storytellingas stories are able to address right and left brain hemispheres alike. Treat stories as vehicles of creativity leading to the bigger picture and possibility to gain new knowledge and wisdom at the same time.

Working with stories, also with visual stories is one of the most powerful ways to dive into new cultures, as people are eager to relate to real life stories and listen to them, reflecting upon their own experiences. You may use myths, fairy tales, legends and current stories to offer insights into cultural values. Showing movies, commercials, and visual materials, such as info graphics and pictures accompanied by stories makes the “new knowledge” more tangible and easier to remember and to digest. Nevertheless, storytelling should occur on purpose. You need to reflect on your intentions. Why are you showing a certain movie or a certain picture? What cultural values can the participants distill and refer to? Stories definitely can enhance learning, motivation and self-reflection. They can, however, reinforce stereotypes and show the “worn off” realities that need to change. That is why while choosing the visual materials and stories plan how you would like to debrief your interventions. 

Eventually, invite your participants to share their own stories and introduce the idea of breaking patterns if new solutions are required. 

B. BREAKING PATTERNS

“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding” Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo kept breaking patterns and was a big dreamer. Many of his ideas were ahead of his time and way ahead of the technical possibilities of the Renaissance. He did not get discouraged, though. Many ideas of his ideas never saw daylight not because of their innovatory “utopian” character but because Leonardo abandoned them, most probably satisfied with the level of understanding the mechanism.

It takes persistence to break patternsby introducing new solutions instead of providing “old-same, old-same” solutions to align with the status quo. It is important to achieve balance between the creative ideas and possibilities to turn them into reality, though.

One of the best methods that contribute to achieving this balance is Disney’s Creative Strategy. The method in a nutshell can be described as follows: Divide your participants into three groups: the dreamers, the realists, and the critics. Everyone takes every role in the process of searching for new ideas. The dreamers work on the ideas, the realists look at their proposals through the lens of possibilities, and the critics ask constructive questions and offer ideas on how to improve and develop the visions proposed by the first and revised by the second group.

C. COURAGE & CURIOSITY

“Learning never exhausts the mind” Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo did not fear new challenges. His curiosity led him to be courageous while experimenting. His willingness to get to know human body, for instance made him conduct numerous sections during time when they were strictly forbidden. Thanks to this new knowledge he reached perfection in depicting human body.

It requires courage to propose new forms of learning and sharing stories across cultures and so gain new insights on intercultural cooperation and leadership in the global, digital settings.

Ask yourself what changes you wish to see happen during and after the intercultural programs you are designing prior to the design. What can be your courageous action and how can you trigger your participants’ curiosity and inspire them to take action in their surroundings. 

D. DRAWING AND DESCRIBING BASED ON OBSERVATION

“All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions” Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo was an excellent observer and he continuously kept record of his observations in form of drawings with precise descriptions.  That way he put his revolutionary ides to the paper and offered various, often completely new solutions based on perspective change. Observing birds made him dream further and propose a flying machine for people.

Make sure that your participants have possibilities to describeand listen to other descriptions and discover that way new ways of perception and interpretation, so to say to see the same things indifferent light with different eyes. Not only your participants should use this occasion, though. It is also you who can practice “out-of-box” thinking by changing perspective.

Make sure there are spaces for sharing stories and experiences among your participants. In order to enhance your participants’perception skillsinvite them to describe what they see, hear, taste, smell before offering interpretations through their own cultural lens. For better harvesting you may ask them to write down their observations in form of a tweet, a short story or a comics. You also may include an exercise on story listening to raise awareness how selective our listening skills are and how misunderstandings can occur.  

E. EXPERIMENTING & gathering EXPERIENCES

“Experience is a truer guide than the words of others” Leonardo da Vinci 

Leonardo loved experimenting. His notes include a rich fan of experiments showing that he continuously thought of new possible solutions. Once he threw a sponge filled with paint against the wall and imagined the abstract form as a horse with four wheels. He also invented the prototype of the first bicycle, breaking with the idea of means of transport with three and four wheels. He also tried to fulfill the dream of flying and constructed a flying machine, inspired by bird wings.

To encourage the “experimenting mode” make sure you provide spaces of psychological safety, where participants are eager to share the “craziest ideas” without fear of being judged and have the chance to experience the unknown cultures and reflect upon their behavior and reactions.  

Leonardo’s da Vinci bicycle at the Leonardo’s Museum in Vinci

F. FREEDOM OF THOUGHT 

Leonardo carried his notebook with him all the time so that he always was able to draw and write down his ideas, impressions, and observations. He did not judge what should have been part of his records, simply followed the rule of the freedom of thought and recorded everything that appeared relevant to him. He definitely was able to experience flow and forget the entire world around him when he was triggered by a new idea or experienced the creative phase.

The freedom of thought is the basis for every creative process. Try not to be judgmental towards your own ideas while designing an intercultural program, no matter whether a training, a workshop, a large group facilitation or a coaching session. Keeping a notebook to record different observations and impressions is the key to innovation. How can you implement brilliant thoughts when you forget them in the course of a busy day? 

You also can inspire your participants to keep record of their observations and ideas in the new cultural contexts and take personal notes or keep diaries. Honesty and authenticity are the keys to self-development. 

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna Litta, Ermitage in Sankt Petersburg

G. “GOING UP IN SMOKE” – SFUMATO AND OTHER INNOVATIONS

“Greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less” – Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo introduced sfumato (literally „going up in smoke“) in his paintings by creating fine shading that produces soft transitions between colors and tones. He knew that only an open mind is ready to introduce innovation and in order to have that open mind it is necessary to have breaks to relax. 

Make sure that as an intercultural professional you are making breaks when designing intercultural programs. Go out, get inspirations in nature, art galleries, museums, coffee shops, among people and travel, travel, travel. Even if you think you are not working your brain gathers impressions you can transform into innovations at a later point in time. 

Also your clients need breaks to gather inspirations and introduce innovations in their working environment across cultures. Think how you can encourage them to consider these time slots “quality time”. Do you have any stories that can inspire them to take “creative breaks”?

Leonardo da Vinci, The Vitruvian Man, Sculpture in front of the Leonardo’s Museum in Vinci

H. HUMANISM & HOLISTIC APPROACH

“The five senses are ministers of soul” Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo knew that our senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell are keys to doors of experience. He paid attention to synesthesia (merging of the senses) and accordingly to his notes enjoyed experiencing the surroundings with all senses.

Much has been said about learning styles. The most popular classification talks about visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles and adaptation to them. As an intercultural practitioner you can create spaces of immersion where your participants can get to know new facets of cultures with all their senses, though.

In order to enable your participants to embrace new cultural surroundings with sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell you may raise their attention to synesthesia and include music, spices, pieces of fabric and pictures from different cultural settings in your intercultural programs. Remember that every human being is unique and the human-centered approach in the intercultural education is the key. “Cultures do not communicate, people communicate”

I. INTERDISCIPLINARY APPROACH

Apply the interdisciplinary approach.Most of the intercultural professionals have gathered their experiences in other fields than intercultural studies, such as psychology, linguistics, history, business and sociology, just to name a few.  

Think how you can combine different areas of your expertise and enrich your clients’ intercultural learning. In my case, I am eager to apply the storytelling approach, use coaching interventions, show numerous visuals to present cultural influences and share the newest research from the neuroscience field. 

Write down what are the areas of your expertise and how you can enhance intercultural learning with them. 

Additionally to the above strengths “Leonardo emphasized the importance of an esthetically uplifting working environment. He understood that the sensory impressions from our daily environments act as kind of food for our brains” (Gelb, Michael: 2000. How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day).

As an intercultural practitioner you are in charge of creating not only a working environment that supports creativity in your own office but also in the training, consulting and coaching rooms. To get started consider visual materials, fragrances and music during breaks and apply the most important component to successful working…

J. JOY.

Leonardo da Vinci, Flying Machine at the Leonardo’s Museum in Vinci

If you got curious about how you can apply creative methods inspired by Leonardo’s life and oeuvre reach for the book by Michael Gelb, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, 2000

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=9780307573520&i=stripbooks&linkCode=qs