Dresser & Associates

Michelangelo’s timeless lesson on HR Management

Not too long ago, I picked up an old, worn book my husband had purchased at a flea market. The $2.00 sticker was still affixed and, before I started reading, I could not have anticipated how much value there would be between the covers of that flea market “find.”

Worlds Greatest LettersThe book is titled “The Worlds Great Letters.” The oldest letters are an exchange between Alexander the Great and King Darius III ; the most modern letter in this 1940 publication is a letter from Thomas Mann renouncing the Hitler regime for its crimes.

In between all of these wonderfully informative and engaging letters, I found myself especially intrigued by one written by Michelangelo, in 1506, to Maestro Giulliano, Architect to the Vatican. I have thought back to this letter repeatedly, and considered how timeless its lessons are to the management of human resources.

Michelangelo’s assignment

Michelangelo had been summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II to build his tomb. The specifications that Michelangelo submitted were on a gigantic scale, calling for a three story edifice with forty major statues in bronze and marble. The Pope was demanding and politically ambitious, and the scale of the project likely seemed to Michelangelo an appropriate and necessary tribute to His Holiness’ stature.

The Pope’s head architect, however, wanted his own nephew to create the work and set about discrediting Michelangelo and “poisoning the mind” of the Pope against him. Michelangelo recounts that the Pope subsequently withheld funds necessary for the project. “…I asked him for some of the money required for the continuance of my work. His Holiness replied that I was to come back again on Monday; and I went on Monday, and on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, and on Thursday – as His Holiness saw. At last, on the Friday morning, I was turned out…”

Michelangelo fled to Florence, and the Pope soon summoned him, through another of his architects, to return to complete the work. In his letter Michelangelo recounts how he “lost all hope” in seeing that the Pope did not intend to fund the project, and how he feared for his life because of the politics surrounding the project. Michelangelo, in his letter, now sets the terms and conditions. “Give His Holiness to understand that if he really wishes to have this tomb erected it would be well for him not to vex me as to where the work is to be done, provided that within the agreed period of five years it will be erected in St. Peter’s, on the site he shall choose, and that it be a beautiful work, as I have promised.”

Timeless lesson to human resources management

It took three papal decrees and the threat of war against the Florentine Republic for Michelangelo to return to Rome. The project languished as, for four years, he was reassigned (to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). A year after that, Pope Julius II died. At the whim of heirs and future Popes, Michelangelo was required to change the plans five times, and the project was never completed.

In Pope Julius II, we see a “boss” who has set an expectation that his projects must be grand and self-serving. From Michelangelo’s letter, it is clear that he understood the financial requirements of the work, yet he also understood that it would take a colossal project design to satisfy the Pope’s colossal ego. How often, today, do CEOs send inadvertent signals to their workforce that those best rewarded will be those who feed the executive’s ego, rather than those who make sound, but difficult, business decisions?

We see, too, the imperative of budgeting money and time adequate to the task. Michelangelo’s anger at being fully invested in his work, without the means to complete it, is a modern day dilemma. The difference between success and failure in an enterprise is very often employees who are fully engaged in their work, and who feel supported by management. The action of Pope Julius II in withholding resources, and then restoring them; in committing to the project, then assigning Michelangelo other work; in promising commissions, but not paying them – these are the kinds of actions that, even today, will cause the best employees to “flee.”

Assessing negative information

There is a lesson for today’s managers, too, in assessing negative information brought to them by others in the organization. Undoubtedly the Pope was aware, or could have determined, that his head architect had a nephew, Raphael of Urbino, whom he wished to employ in Michelangelo’s place. With or without that information, we know that the Pope sabotaged the completion of his own project by allowing someone in his line of control to harass and alienate a high talent individual who was critical to its success.

Today, just as with this situation in the early 1500’s, an employee who is angry and embittered is likely to attempt to take control over the employment relationship. From the safety of Florence, Michelangelo agreed to complete the tomb, but on his terms. In your company, the alienated employee may engage in “take it or leave it” negotiations over commissions, take time off when it is most inconvenient for your production schedule, or regularly flaunt your dress code. Others may seek to restore personal dignity or “balance the scales’ by filing a lawsuit.

In the end, after making five changes to the project plans after Pope Julius II died and after 40 years of effort to fulfill his contract, the only visible result was a single statue of Moses. How often have you seen in your company that, when the vision is lost, the project flounders?

Whether you are an executive, a human resources professional, or a direct supervisor of employees, Michelangelo’s historical letter can offer important lessons. History makes it clear that Pope Julius II’s grand project did not fail for lack of expertise or commitment on the part of its designer and artist. For all of us who work with people, it is instructive to consider what obstacles we might be creating in our own work environments to limit the creativity and accomplishments of our own Michelangelo’s, our most talented people.

Share This Article


Subscribe via Email


 Subscribe via RSS

Search the Blog