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How to Master the Art of Managing Up

Michelangelo and the magic of marble dust.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Michelangelo knew what many managers never quite figure out.

Your job isn’t to always be right. Your job is to be effective.

Michelangelo knew this. In the early 1500’s, he was commissioned by Florence’s mayor Piero Soderini to create a sculpture out of a misshapen block of marble. Several artists had already turned down the commission. The marble was so badly damaged that they decided they could not work with it.

Seeing what others could not, Michelangelo recognized that he could carve around the deformities in the material, and if he posed his subject just right, it could be made into a beautiful statue.

He recognized that a young David, sling in hand, was buried in that marble.

The master, managing up.

Three years later, Michelangelo was putting finishing touches on his masterpiece when Soderini paid him a visit.

Soderini, standing directly beneath the 17-foot tall David, marveled at the beauty of the sculpture. He knew that he was witnessing genius, and he told Michelangelo so.

There was one little issue, though. Soderini felt that David’s nose was a bit too large.

Just imagine how many ways things could’ve gone badly from this point.

Michelangelo was nearly complete with one of the greatest works of art the world had ever known. David embodied artistic perfection, and Michelangelo knew it.

And here was this amateur, this politician no less, pointing out what he thought was a flaw. The nerve of this man.

And yet this man, for all intents and purposes, was Michelangelo’s boss. He held the purse strings.

A matter of perspective.

Michelangelo knew that from Soderini’s vantage point, 17 feet below and looking straight up at it, David’s nose could appear too large. It was a matter of perspective.

Michelangelo could’ve pointed this out. Could’ve tried to convince Soderini that he was wrong. That it was just a trick of perspective.

He didn’t.

Instead, he asked Soderini to climb the scaffolding with him. He knew that from up there, Soderini would see that David’s nose was indeed perfectly proportioned.

Michelangelo took his tools up with him, and made sure he had a little bit of marble dust in his hand as well.

With Soderini standing next to him, he worked his chisel along David’s nose, but not heavily enough to actually change it. He let the marble dust fall from his hand.

“Brilliant!” Soderini exclaimed.

Michelangelo knew he wasn’t going to win an argument. So he did something infinitely more powerful. He turned his critic into a collaborator.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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