Painting the Canvas

Lance Creativity, Leadership Leave a Comment

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Less than three full years ago, Tim Urban wrote his first long-form post to christen his new site, WaitButWhy.

In February, Tim was on the TED stage in Vancouver, turning his theory on procrastination and stick figure drawings into a standing ovation. On March 15, the video of Tim’s talk was released, and in the 6 short weeks since, it has rocketed to 4 million views.

Recently, this eclectic blogger and stick figure savant was a guest with my friend Ryan Hawk on  The Learning Leader ShowDuring his appearance, Tim gave an interesting take on what it means to be a successful leader.

For Tim, leading means doing things that “change what other people do,” and the level of impact one has as a leader is the metric for success. To illustrate this, Tim used the image of a white canvas as a metaphor for life. Below is my interpretation of what he said next using images for that metaphor:

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Most people are painting white on white, and nothing is really different. It’s not wrong. It’s normal. It’s most of us most of the time.

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Impact happens when somebody comes along and steps outside of the status quo. She does something conventional wisdom suggests is wrong. There’s nothing actually wrong about it — it’s just not the way things have been done before.

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She starts painting with a different color, and that shakes things up. Sometimes it’s bad and leads to spectacular failures. But, when it goes well, it rewrites the rules of what is acceptable.

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Now everyone feels free to paint in something other than white. A new status quo exists. Change has been made.

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To continue to make an impact, however, more change is needed. The Leader can’t keep painting in blue forever, else she risks becoming part of the canvas. Painting blue on blue is no more impactful than painting white on white. Continual reinvention is needed, so the Leader kick-starts the cycle anew.


At this point, Tim’s answer ended and he and Ryan moved on to other topics — like what it looks like for a procrastinator to prepare for a TED Talk about procrastination. (You can read Tim’s humorous telling of it here.)

For me, though, there’s more about leadership to be drawn from this metaphor of the canvas: the importance of going first and what takes center stage.

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When people bring their normal, white-painting selves to the canvas first …

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… and the Leader comes after, painting blue over everything, change certainly occurs. But, in this model, it is the Leaders’s contribution that stands out above all else. This is what Jim Collins called “Level 4 Leadership” in Good to Great.

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On the other hand, if the Leader goes first, and makes the change foundational in a way that it becomes the background

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… an entirely different picture becomes possible.

With the Leader who is willing to do their transformational work in the background in a way that it creates a new canvas, two new things are possible:

  • The contributions of everyone else become more noticeable, not less. Their creativity takes center stage, not the Leader’s;
  • All of this becomes possible without making everyone else paint with a different color. With leadership impact of this variety, even those who are too afraid to pick up a brush with a different color paint can stand out and make their own contribution to the picture using their tried and true white strokes.

As you lead, remember these two powerful lessons from the metaphor of the canvas:

  1. Break conventions and change the color of the canvas, and
  2. do so in a way that enhances the contributions of others, rather than covers them up.