A Valentine’s date with Leonardo da Vinci

Every now and then you have a chance encounter that turns into something far more. That’s what happened to me with Allegra Jordan, whom I first met back in 2006 at a women’s program at Harvard Business School.

Somehow we got to talking. One thing led to another, and we made plans to meet for dinner that evening at a restaurant in Harvard Square. Over upscale New England home cooking, we traded life stories, finding many overlapping interests. Along with our Harvard professional degrees (mine a J.D., hers an M.B.A.), we shared ties to the southern United States (she’d grown up in Alabama, while I’d spent years working in Tennessee and Mississippi). But most important of all was our shared concern with finding ways to bridge our secular and spiritual lives, whether they be devoutly Christian (hers) or Buddhist eclectic (mine).

Flash forward five-plus years, and both of us have been through seismic changes—jobs, relationships, geographic moves.  At the same time, the commitments that brought us together remain very much the same, and what began as a single meal is now a solid friendship.

In this guest post, Allegra describes how her own Plan B Nation story led her to launch Innovation Abbey, a social justice-oriented consulting firm with projects around the world (and with which I’m now honored to be affiliated). 

By Allegra Jordan

February 13, 2010. Snow is falling as my dog Belvedere and I pull out of my Chapel Hill driveway and begin the drive to Atlanta. By the time we reach the North Carolina border, traffic is at a standstill. Eighteen wheelers slide precariously close to us along the rolling hills. The six-hour trip ends up taking three times that long.

If this had been an ordinary trip, I would have turned around and waited for the roads to clear. But it was Valentine’s weekend, a brutal anniversary. One year before, I’d received a pink slip from my then-husband, followed by the same at work. The descent was so stunning it became introductory material for a forthcoming book with the tongue-in-cheek working title Is Feminism in Bad Shape? Check out Allegra. The story: our plucky honors Harvard Business School graduate marries, pursues a career in innovation, sacrifices, and ultimately becomes a cautionary tale for others.

Stick around for the weekend anniversary? No way.

Instead, I got tickets to the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. My goal: To rest my eyes on consequential, centuries-old beauty. I hoped this experience would soothe and heal my heart. I was going to show up to life, show up to beauty, and show up to excellence. If I had to drive 18 hours, I would gladly do so.

But there was no “a-ha” moment for me on that bleak winter day. Tense from the drive, protecting a badly wounded heart, I searched in vain for what I was seeking. I saw nothing that moved me, nothing that seemed to justify the long and exhausting trip.

Valentine’s Day dawned in Atlanta to below-freezing temperatures. The sun had yet to rise when I embarked on my return trip over black-ice slicked roads. As I carefully started the long drive back, my spirits were low. It would have made sense to wait a while, but I didn’t have that luxury: I needed to make it back in time to pick up my sons at their father’s.

And then, just a few hours later, everything suddenly shifted.

As I crossed the border into South Carolina around 10 a.m., the sun peeked into view. As if on cue, the air seemed to warm. My tension and anxiety drained away, leaving a feeling of calm. For the first time in three days, I finally relaxed. It was then the blessing came.

I can only describe it as an epiphany. And epiphanies or daydreams are funny, inexplicable things. Neurologically, I can speculate that after I finally relaxed the executive center of my brain, I opened the door to a series of neuro-tonal images. It was a bit like being awake and dreaming at the same time.

I saw Leonardo sitting on a ladder. I drew closer.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“I can help you,” he said.

“How? There’s no place for me.”

“There was no place for me either—I did so many different things and few of them fit with each other. Even Michelangelo made fun of me for that big horse I tried. But if I could make it in the 1500s, then perhaps you can too.”

“But my work situation, my home life—I’ve been so betrayed.”

“Have you ever worked for a Sforza?”

I laughed. The Sforza coat of arms includes a viper eating a child. It’s hard to think of a more threatening boss than that.

“If I could do it, perhaps you can too,” the master said. “I’ll help.”

That was it. The epiphany was over.

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison writes that a true and good friend is someone who takes the pieces of “who I am” and gives them “back to me in all the right order.” In that sense, this epiphany helped me see the path forward. In those moments, I found my tribe.

One year later I started Innovation Abbey, recruiting a first-class team that shares my dedication to evidence-based innovation steeped in deep wisdom about how people really work. Since our launch, we’ve worked in 10 countries in Asia and two in Africa, as well as in the United States. Our projects are starting to bear fruit, though the work of innovation— innovare or renewal in Latin—is the work of a lifetime.

Our competitive edge? We believe that human beings, not data or processes, are the root cause of innovation. Yes, people of faith need people of spreadsheets, and I have been a person of spreadsheets. But it also works the other way: data and processes need the human spirit.

Our name hearkens back to the ancient abbey system of Europe and Asia, which managed to combine operations and deep knowledge of people to show a better way forward. While far from perfect, the 1,400 Cluny abbeys nevertheless helped bring Europe out of chaos, war, and disease 1,100 years ago­—and without a single mobile phone.

I’ll close with a humble—but telling—story from a project we completed in Laos late last year.

In the Lao culture, there isn’t a word for innovation. But there is a word for love.

We were invited to work with a public health administrator working to teach her team about innovation.

She gathered her whole team—including her driver—to talk about innovation, using the materials we had provided as a jumping off point. The first discussion caused confusion. But the team did not give up. “We don’t know what this is but we love our regional manager who tells us this is important. We will do it for this manager whom we respect,” was the general consensus.

The tide finally began to turn when the Lao team connected in Thai with another group studying innovation with us. After this, the Lao team began to feel more comfortable with the innovation process and related concepts, the team leader told us. How did she know? Here’s what she said:

“I got in my car. Usually you tell the driver where to go street by street and they drive you that way. But this time the driver turned to me and said, ‘I’ve been thinking. For two years we’ve driven that way. I know a shorter route. May we try it?’”

When I heard this, my heart lifted. Think of the time value in money! How much time had two years of the directive mindset cost the team? And how much time might be saved going forward? Not to mention the larger changes likely to follow as the innovation mindset begins to take root and flourish.  And significantly, the breakthrough stemmed from love—from the feelings of respect and connection that bound team members to their regional manager.

I see innovation as the response of humanity struggling to renew in the midst of a competitive and dysfunctional world where there are amazing things yet to be discovered. I’ve had to give up almost everything to gain this wisdom. It’s becoming slowly apparent to me that it is worth it.

It’s our challenge to build a beautiful future together on the cold embers of a past that did not work. We have the spirit of a genius engineer, painter, draftsman, sculptor, and inventor that can meet us, even today. As I walk into this unknown, and potentially beautiful, unbounded future, I do so with a new confidence that I’m not alone. I’m searching for—and starting to find—the members of my lost tribe, the brilliant, visionary, heart-centered tribe of Leonardo da Vinci.

Note: To learn more about Innovation Abbey and its projects, email Allegra with questions or to request an inaugural set of white papers: “The Devil in Innovation,” “Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom about Modern Innovation,” and “What We Learn about Innovation with the Bottom Billion.” Readers are also warmly invited to attend a Tedx event on the theme “Beloved Community” in Chapel Hill on March 3, 2012.