A Work Of Art

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis (which I recently visited) is an incredible testimony to determination, creativity, and faith. Started in 1907, the structure was completed in 1914, but it took several more decades for the church to be “finished.” One of the reasons it took so long is the church contains 83,000 square feet of mosaics, the largest collection of mosaics outside of Russia.

The term “basilica” is Latin for royal palace and is a designation given by the pope to a church that carries special spiritual, historical, and/or architectural significance. A cathedral is the home church for the bishop or archbishop of a Catholic diocese and takes its name from the bishop’s chair, called a cathedra in Latin.

You can google the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis and get more details, but I will point out a few highlights here. The mosaics took over 70 years to complete. The work was divided among several different artisans, with some of them spending their entire careers working on the church. Tesserae, small pieces of smalto or colored glass, were placed onto full sized drawings, then glued to a paper backing in numbered sections. The sections were then installed (much like assembling a giant puzzle) by pressing them into fresh cement troweled onto the ceiling surface.

Gold tesserae were made by sandwiching extremely thin sheets of gold or silver between two slabs of molten glass to produce a mirror like material that is then cut into pieces. Gold and silver tesserae were used in Roman and early Christian mosaics simply to depict gold and silver objects. In later mosaics of the Early Christian period and in Byzantine mosaics (like the ones in this cathedral), solid fields of gold tesserae form the gold background that appears in almost every decoration. During the installation, the craftsman used a dowel to “punch” down a random corner of each tessera to keep them from all being in the same plane. This way, as the viewer moves around, the light reflects differently on each tile creating a vibrant sparkling and ever-changing surface.

As I was sitting in a 100+ year old pew contemplating the incredible work above me, I was struck by the analogies I was seeing between the mosaics creation and how we create healthy and high functioning teams and communities.

We cannot create what we cannot envision.

The artists and designers (let’s call them leaders) had a plan for what the finished work would look like and what it would represent. While it took decades to complete, the finished work was in mind from the very beginning. Leaders must have a plan, a vision if you will. I acknowledge that this vision might change from time to time as circumstances beyond our control alter our opportunities, but we cannot leave the formation of community to chance.

Determination and perseverance are essential characteristics for leadership.

To create something that is significant and will make a lasting impact requires careful, considered work over a long period of time. There are always intermediate wins and moments for celebration. I can imagine the joy and recognition that was experienced when a gallery or image was completed and could be viewed in its place. Likewise, we will reach points where our teams have developed to a new level or our community has achieved new potential, but the completed work may take years or even our entire career.

We are each equally valuable, but we are not the same, nor should we be.

The individual is important, but they have a role to play and a place in the finished work. If an individual is unwilling or unable to play their part and fill their position, leaders must find a different place for them and find the right person for that spot. The mosaics in the cathedral contain 41.5 million tesserae in 7,000 different colors. Each color and each piece is important, but they must be placed correctly to create the complete image. I imagine the artists picked up many pieces only to put them down and pick up another one until they found the one that fit perfectly in the space. However, uniformity wasn’t the goal either. The mosaics are incredible, in part, because of the uniqueness of the individual tessera. The artists even created additional “diversity” by keeping the pieces from lying in a completely even plane.

What we believe shapes what we create.

The men and women who envisioned the cathedral in St. Louis were inspired by their faith to create a place where people could worship in an environment that attempted to acknowledge how important faith was to them. The culture of our organizations and communities will reflect what is important to us. If our belief is in ourselves and we are self-important, our organizations will be constructed to serve us and look like us. If our faith is in something greater than ourselves and we are other-oriented, our communities will be incredible displays of diversity in harmony and will make a difference in the lives of people who live and work there.

I hope you have the vision as a leader to see past your own needs and desires and imagine a community that will make a lasting difference. It will take determination and might require your entire career to accomplish. You may not even see it completed. Along the way, you will have the satisfaction of seeing everyone in your care find a place where they can participate in making the bigger picture a reality without sacrificing their individuality or their humanity. If we can do that, our communities will be a work of art and a picture of The Kimray Way.