Count Baldassare Castiglione, in the 15th century in Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) wrote about a concept packed into the Italian word: sprezzatura. Officially meaning nonchalance, Castiglione took the definition of sprezzatura a bit further, explaining that the best courtier, or gentleman, was capable of incredible adroitness at things, but yet at the same time could make them look effortless. This casual excellence was seen as one of the requirements of the upper class, and in particular, for the Italian reputation.
This concept reminds me of modern day professional athletes who make their sports look so easy one would almost think anyone could perform them accordingly. Once, way back in my snot-nosed motocross days, I had that impression after watching the professional racers in a stadium Supercross event. The following year I was down on the track to try it for myself and quickly found that the professionals had made their craft look extremely easy! I stumbled around, crashed, and burned several times as I rapidly grew in my respect for these inhuman men who could make their bikes do such seemingly simple maneuvers in front of flashing cameras and screaming fans.
The more I have thought about this concept of adroitness made to look easy, the more I have come to realize that mastery usually looks fun. The best performers always make their tasks seem easy, obvious, and enjoyable.
One great example of this is Benjamin Franklin. In his case his casual and affable conduct mixed with his mastery to the point where he even fostered enemies who accused him of laziness - in other words, he made it look so easy they thought he wasn't even doing anything!
Ben Franklin had an interesting life. I like to think of it as being lived out in three distinct phases: first was his early entrepreneurialism and writing. Second came his scientific and inventive exploits. Third was his statesmanship.
It is in this third stage where he particularly demonstrated what Castiglione would readily call sprezzatura. Franklin, who had spent the better part of his "second phase" living in England as an ambassador for the colonies to the mother country, would then be sent to France at the start of the American Revolutionary War. His task was simple enough to describe but nearly impossible to accomplish: convince the King of France to support the colonies in their rebellion against the King of England. This would involve money (what doesn't?), munitions, clothing, food, and even ships and men. The reason this task was so daunting was because at that moment France was not at war with England. Doubly, what the rebellious colonies were actually doing was warring against a monarchy, of which France was a particular example of one!
So off sails Franklin across the Atlantic once again with little more than his scientific reputation as a foot in the door at the great court of King Louis XVI. He is representing a band of thirteen colonies which aren't even a country. He cannot be officially recognized as an ambassador, because his home "nation" hasn't even been recognized as such. The diplomatic challenges were immense. The risks for France were grave. The costs of what Franklin was attempting to obtain were enormous. The spies and opposition from England were prolific and proficient. Incredibly, however, the young colonies of North America had sent perhaps the only man capable of pulling off the miracle.
Franklin was to work with two other colonials, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, two men who would quickly set to feuding with each other and then Franklin. At one point Silas Deane was recalled to the colonies where he then proceeded to trash Franklin's reputation and ability to everyone and anyone who would listen. Deane was replaced by John Adams, a man whom Franklin had had previous dealings. Both Franklin and Adams expected the arrangement to work well, but that didn't turn out to be the case. Adams too would become a very vicious critic of Franklin's ineptness, at first confining his vitriol to letters, and finally haranguing Franklin openly and bitterly.
There were other difficulties for Franklin. For one, other colonies sent over their own individual commissioners to pester the court of Louis XVI and did nothing but muddy the waters. Additionally, his own household was fraught with English spies. Further, his own grandson (just seventeen years old) was forced into service as his only secretary, and was never really compensated for eight years of dedicated service. Franklin even had terribly painful bouts with gout, attacks that often left him immobile and incapable of going out.
So besieged by enemies from within and without, hampered by an almost non-existent staff, set in the middle of constant bickering by his supposed teammates, and wracked with health challenges,Franklin went about his task. He quickly won over France's chief minister Vergennes and built a personal relationship that was to become the hinge point of the entire French war effort. Some of the early colonial victories at Trenton and Saratoga helped legitimize the rebel cause, but progress was slow and required the most masterful diplomacy to move forward even an inch.
Then things progressed from bad to worse. The British took Charleston from the colonies. The Continental Dollar was devalued by overprinting (sound familiar?) down from 40 to 1! A massive feud developed between naval commanders in which Franklin had to constantly mediate, and it cost over a year of time for getting much needed supplies to Washington's army (and Franklin himself was blamed for this). And to top it all off, John Adams wrote some extremely nasty things about Franklin:
"The history of our revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklin's electrical rod smote the Earth and out sprung George Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod - and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislatures, and war."
At one point Vergennes became so exasperated with the Americans as to almost lose hope for the cause in which he had so extended himself. Wrote Stacy Schiff, "Vergennes deplored American infighting, his allies' obsessions with their personal affairs seemed to take priority over their independence." (Again, does any of this sound familiar?) But the bad news would not stop coming. Horatio Gates, the top colonial general in the south, suffered a string of embarrassing defeats and had to be replaced. Next, Benedict Arnold famously became a traitor and attempted to entrap and hand over General Washington himself to the British. And in almost impossible-to-believe timing, at roughly that same time Congress was voting upon whether or not to recall Franklin for ineffectiveness!
Franklin's efforts, however, were bearing fruit. His personal relationship with Vergennes and the mutual respect the men had developed literally came to the rescue. Stacy Schiff wrote, "[Franklin] was fortunate in that the combined offenses of the Lees and the Adamses were every bit as effective as his own eloquence. Vergennes was as offended by the [political infighting and sea captain debacle] as was he. As much to spite Franklin's enemies as to gratify America, the French minister determined immediately to grant additional funds. He also directed [the French minister in America] to sing Franklin's praises. It was purely out of esteem for and confidence in its minister plenipotentiary that Vergennes now resolved to help America out of her financial embarrassment. 'Let them judge by my gesture, which is entirely personal, if the behavior of this minister [Franklin] had endangered the interests of his nation, and if anyone other than he could have obtained the same advantages.'"
A clear indication of the difference between a diplomatic virtuoso like Franklin and an egotistical amateur like Adams can immediately be seen in the contrast between two of their comments relating to these squabbles:
Franklin: "They quarrel at me rather than with me; for I will not quarrel with them."
Adams: "Resentment is a passion, implanted by nature for the preservation of the individual. Injury is the object which excites it. Injustice, wrong, injury excited the feeling of resentment, as naturally and necessarily as frost and ice excite the feeling of cold, a fire excites heat, and as both excite pain. A man may have the faculty of concealing his resentment, or suppressing it, but he must and ought to feel it. Nay he ought to indulge it, to cultivate it. It is a duty."
In the end, of course, we know what happened. Franklin's entreaties through Vergennes to King Louis XVI were successful. France contributed more to the American Revolution than they had to the entire Seven Years world war a decade and a half before, in which they were directly involved. Ultimately, France's contribution to the American cause would lead (among other things) to the bankrupting of France's government, the French Revolution, and the beheading of Louis XVI. In essence, what Franklin had secured through masterful diplomacy would birth one nation and kill another, toppling monarchies and fostering the Age of Revolution.
How did Franklin do it? How did he keep his sanity through it all? How did he keep his eye on the task when all around him was turbulent and tumultuous? How did he keep from quitting in despair? And ultimately, how did he accomplish so much while appearing to be hardly exerting himself at all?
The answer, I believe, comes from the definition of sprezzatura as posited by Castigione over two centuries before. Franklin had a way of having fun through all of it, and this kept him balanced and sane. He wrote humorous little ditties that he even published in newspapers. He made many friends in upper Parisian society (a strategic move as much as an entertaining one), and even carried on a couple of famous public flirtations with high-profile French society women. He always seemed to keep an element of fun and lightheartedness to his dealings. He controlled his temper and refused to drop down to the level of his adversaries. He remained humble, never totally able to take himself as seriously as the snobs and the selfish around him who were so uptight about their honor and their appearances. This, quite possibly, came from the fact that he could never totally overcome in his own mind the fact that he had been born a humble candlemaker's son. All of this allowed Franklin to move at the pace of events, doing just the right amount at just the right time with just the right people - the hallmark of professional diplomacy. In fact, diplomacy is the very craft in which "trying too hard" or being too busy can almost always result in the opposite of what is intended. Perhaps more than any other endeavor, diplomacy requires the art of making it look simple and, well, nonchalant. Of this, Franklin was a master.
It is quite sad that in our entertainment-saoked culture today we pursue fun as an object in itself. Of course, such pursuit can only end in an empty chase for more fun. Unfortunately, most of the "fun junkies" of our world are missing the point of fun entirely. Fun is not there for its own sake alone. Fun is a tool of sanity, of effectiveness, and of mastery. Fun leads to an apparent but misleading nonchalance, more accurately stated as, "I have mastered this activity and look how much I am enjoying maximizing my gifts in a worthy purpose." You see, the reason the best at any field make it look so easy is because there is something deeply satisfying about working hard for a long time at a worthy task and finally getting good at it.
Fun can be a powerfully effective tool by:
1. creating a good first impression
2. disarming enemies
3. building and "greasing" relationships
4. helping one to keep a proper perspective
5. diffusing tense situations
6. disavowing prideful behavior
7. keeping sanity as a "pressure relief valve"
8. restoring our frayed nerves and attitudes
9. allowing one to "keep one's head" (no pun intended, sorry Louis)
10. producing situations in which some work can actually get done (called "dinner table diplomacy" in Franklin's day)
So use fun as a leadership tool. Find fun in your every day dealings and find fun things to do in between, all the while relentlessly pursuing mastery in your calling. Spread fun among others. Do all of this, and you will likely sail higher, farther, and better than your rivals, who will be forced to observe your competence in frustration as you make it look so easy. You will reach a state of sprezzatura to make even Castiglione proud.
One final salute to Franklin from the pen of Stacy Schiff: "[Franklin] was the opportunistic envoy from the land of opportunity, that pluralistic singularity that is the United States. His was an initial display of America's scrappy, improvisatory genius . . . . " May we all become the same!