The Five Traits of the Digital Renaissance Man

By Charles Araujo  |  Posted 07-08-2014
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The Five Traits of the Digital Renaissance Man

By Charles Araujo

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei and Sir Francis Bacon. What comes to mind when you hear these names? Great thinker? Philosopher? Scientist? Artist?

Any of these and all of these are, of course, correct. These great men were all of these things and more. And they were part of a time that ushered in a great expansion of human knowledge, discovery and exploration.  

They were Renaissance men.

The term is now used, for both men and women, to describe people who have deep expertise and experience in a wide range of disciplines and are able to apply this breadth of knowledge to solve complex problems. In many ways, it is the ultimate compliment and a signal of intellectual respect. It is a sign that rather than being a one-dimensional expert in a single domain, you are able to see the world differently and address challenges in ways that others simply cannot.  

It is why these great Renaissance men of centuries ago are held in such high regard today. Amassing this sort of breadth of expertise and applying it in meaningful ways is no simple feat, especially in today’s ever changing and complex world. But I believe we are entering a time in which all of us must move ourselves a little bit closer to this ideal. I believe we all must become Renaissance leaders.

The Uncharted Career

Philosopher. Writer, Linguist. Musician. Technologist. Customer service expert.

To the untrained eye, Roy Atkinson may seem to be someone who could never quite figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up. Atkinson is currently a senior writer and analyst with HDI, the unit of UBM that runs a community of IT customer support professionals. Atkinson and I have crossed paths over the years at conferences and speaking gigs, but during a chance conversation a few months ago I learned that he had a wildly diverse career, long before he entered the IT industry. And as he explained his personal history, I began to understand why Roy had the divergent views and outlooks he did and how his story might be instructive to all of us as we struggle to adapt to the profound changes impacting our industry. I began to see him as a model for what I am calling the new Digital Renaissance Leader.

In my book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change, I wrote about the new skills that every IT leader will require to have as we transition into this new age of IT. These new skills are business-oriented and not technical in their nature. One of the things that I have heard from IT pros as they have attempted to adopt these skills is how difficult it is to transition from the hard technical skills of our recent past to these types of softer business skills that are more difficult to quantify. Let’s face it, it’s a whole lot easier to decide that you’re going to learn a new programming language or system administration skill than it is to become a "better collaborator and innovator." So, I found Atkinson’s story both fascinating and instructive.

Atkinson is one of those rare people who managed to make a professional living playing music for over 20 years.  

If you are a musician or know a musician, you understand how difficult this is to accomplish. Yet Atkinson did it and had the opportunity to open for and play with some great musicians along the way (think Eddie Rabbit, Orleans), and he even played on Fridays at a club where Billy Joel was the Wednesday night act! He was named the best solo artist in the mid-Hudson region of New York for six years straight before being inducted into Music Machine Magazine's Hall of Fame. But while Roy made a career out of music before he began his career in IT, music wasn’t his first career.

Atkinson began his professional pursuits as a philosopher and linguist. Studying languages from the age of 7, he entered college believing that he would become a professor of philosophy and English literature. But while he pursued his academic career he also worked in a variety of industries, doing everything from working in customer service at the busiest supermarket in North America to digging tunnels beneath New York City to working in sales at the world’s second largest producer of cans (to name only a few of his jobs). Atkinson eventually decided that the world of academics wasn’t for him and dove into his musical career.

But even then, this was not a simple, one-dimensional pursuit. He was an early adopter of using a database to track his fans and taught other musicians how to manage their fan base, send newsletters and use technology to promote themselves. He was also an early adopter of the technology storm that overtook both the production and performance side of the music business in the 1980s.

Eventually, Atkinson decided his interest in technology was eclipsing his interest in music and he made the switch 20 years ago to become an IT professional.

The Five Traits of the Digital Renaissance Man

The Universality of People and Service

When Atkinson was telling me the story of his journey, I was amazed at the vast diversity of the jobs and careers that he had pursued. After all, from a career perspective what could be further apart from each other than digging tunnels, working in a supermarket, working at a bank, working for a can producer, being a musician and working in IT at a research lab. Did these gigs have anything in common?

Atkinson’s answer surprised me.

"Every job I had basically came down to the same thing: people and being of service," he told me. "When I was a musician, every time I stepped on stage, I saw my job as serving my audience. In the labs, my job was to help the scientists do amazing research. At the bank, my job was to help the customers meet their financial needs."  

In every position he held, he saw a consistency in his mission. The manner in which he served his customer may have been different, but the purpose and focus was universal. At the same time, however, it was the diversity of these experiences that have given Atkinson the ability to see things differently today as our world changes.  

His time at the supermarket helped him understand how to design business models around the customer.

His time digging tunnels helped him understand the importance of trusting your teammates—even with your life.

His time working with the can company helped him understand how to deal with unpredictable situations.

His time working as a musician taught him how collaborate and improvise with others in real time.

In fact, it is the very diversity of Roy’s career that makes him a model of the future digital leader. The leaders that we will require in our digital future will not be—and cannot be—one-dimensional professionals who have spent their entire career in only one place, doing only one thing. Not very long ago, the situation was the exact opposite. What we most desired was people with deep expertise in a single domain. But today, that singularity of depth is like a small boat anchor tied around your neck.

Instead, what we require are new Digital Renaissance Leaders who have a breadth of knowledge and experience to help us deal with the challenges—both known and unknown—that we are facing today.

The Digital Renaissance Leader

This is the initial article of a new six-part series on what it will take to become a Renaissance man (or woman) in the digital age. In some ways, it does not look all that different from the likes of da Vinci and Michelangelo. We need leaders that are equal parts science and art, equal parts humanity and technology, and equal parts explorer and builder. It is a complex time and we need leaders with diverse and complex experiences to lead us through it.

Over the next few months, my new series will explore the five characteristics of this new Digital Renaissance Leader, which, by the way, applies to both IT and business professionals equally.

The Digital Renaissance Leader will be defined by his or her:

  • Service
  • Eagerness to learn
  • Curiosity
  • Connectedness
  • Emotional awareness

These five traits will be the glue that will allow our digital leaders of the future to explore and connect different disciplines together to find the solutions that others will miss, solutions that we will desperately need in our complex world. It will be up to you to decide if you are ready to join the ranks of greats like da Vinci and Michelangelo. I hope you are. 

About the Author

Charles Araujo is a recovering consultant and accidental author of the book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. He is an internationally recognized authority on IT Leadership and liberally shares his message of hope about the future of IT and what it means for all of us. He is the founder and CEO of the IT Transformation Institute and serves on the boards of itSMF USA and the Executive Next Practices Institute. You can follow him at @charlesaraujo.

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a six-part article series titled "What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man." To read Araujo's previous CIO Insight article, "The Future Belongs to the Dynamic Organization," click here.