News & Insights about Closing the Leadership Gender Gap

Leadership Lessons: Sprezzatura, Otaku & Leadership Excellence


In the quiet of a Sunday afternoon, I savor the book descriptions in my Bas Bleu catalog. One title in particular jumps off the page. Sprezzatura: Fifty Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World.

Being Italian-American, I am obviously destined to like the title, but I am intrigued by something more. Sprezzatura. I try the word on for size; it tickles my fancy and rolls around in my mouth. Reading the blurb that describes the book I discover that sprezzatura means "the art of effortless mastery".

"Aha!" I think, "This single word describes an important component of leadership greatness."

Early in my career I led an important IT project. I was always the youngest person and the only woman in a group of men. I prepared for each meeting with intensity and still felt awkward each and every time I walked into the room with these older, and sometimes dismissive men.

Fast-forward a few years. I was sitting in a similar group of men launching a high stakes project. Suddenly, I had the shocking realization that I was, even as the only woman in the room, totally comfortable leading the project. Somehow, in the intervening years I had made the transition from agonizing effort to effortless mastery -- sprezzatura!

What does it take to get to the point of leading with sprezzatura? 

One answer lies in another word I discovered the same week. Reading Seth Godin's provocative book Purple Cow: Transform your Business by Being Remarkable, I came across the Japanese word otaku. Godin writes:

" Otaku describes something that's more than a hobby but a little less than an obsession. Otaku is the overwhelming desire that gets someone to drive across town to try a new ramen-noodle shop that got a great review.... People read Fast Company because they have an otaku about business. They visit trade shows to stay on the cutting edge -- not just to help their company survive, but because they like that edge. "

I "get" the idea of otaku. I read management books because I have an otaku about leadership and innovation. I have an otaku about leadership lessons from horses. And, I admit to having an otaku about the scones at the The Bakery in Charlestown, RI.

My experiences with widely diverse leaders tell me that otaku about leadership or business or change is a prerequisite for great leadership. Leadership must be something that's more than a hobby, certainly more than an external validation of your worth, but less than an obsession. I think it would be safe to say that the Level 5 leaders in Jim Collins' Good to Great(and the Warren Buffet CEO's) had an otaku about their success of their companies.

In our programs on leadership development for women, we often talk about what the participants love about leadership. I tell them that in order to be great leaders they must love their work or love their company or love their industry or love their profession or believe that what they do is important or love winning or love playing the game. In other words, have otaku about what they do in their organizations.

It's easier to become great at something that we have an otaku about. If we have otaku about leadership, we are likely to move into that state of effortless mastery - to lead with sprezzatura. To know the "right" thing to say or do without conscious thought. To be "in the zone" as we execute our leadership activities. To feel comfortable in any leadership situation.

So, when you think about what drives leadership excellence, remember the sprezzatura of Italian geniuses and the Japanese word otaku!

Topics: Leadership, Career

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