Pixar and “Fear Less” Leaders

Fear? Woody’s just gonna shake it off, shake it off.

Fear and Creativity in Emeryville

In his book Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull calls for a fearless culture. The eloquent and sagacious Maria Popova unpacks this wonderfully.

Catmull begins by pointing out that failure, for most of us, is loaded with heavy baggage — a stigma that failure is bad and a sign of weakness, engrained in us early and hard. For all of our aphorisms about the upside of failure and even our most elegant contemplations of failure’s gift, we still carry deep-seated fear and paralyzing aversion to it, to our own detriment. We are so terrified to be wrong and so uncomfortable with the unknown that we often opt for safety and security over breaking new ground.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Popova highlights Catmull’s acknowledgement there is also a misconception that one should accept failure with dignity and move on.

The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy — trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it — dooms you to fail.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

Catmull then places responsibility upon leaders to foster a culture that doesn’t stigmatize failure.

If you create a fearless culture (or as fearless as human nature will allow), people will be much less hesitant to explore new areas, identifying uncharted patways and then charging down them.

What Will Human Nature Allow?

Even in his strong assertation, Catmull’s parenthetical statement recognizes human nature won’t allow us to eliminate fear. It’s impossible to create a fearless culture since our brains are hardwired to employ fear as a means of survival. And while speaking before a group isn’t life-threatening, our brain imagines the repercussions of failure in dramatic fashion (“If I say something stupid, they’ll laugh at me. Then I’ll embarrass myself and lose their respect. Then they’ll discover I’m a fraud. Then I’ll be fired. Then I won’t have any money. Then I won’t be able to buy food. Then I’ll STARVE TO DEATH.”) So we can’t eliminate fear, but Catmull does give a countermeasure. Trust.

The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions — and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.

So, trust can help reduce fear. I would argue that Catmill isn’t advocating for a fearless culture, but for a “Fear Less” culture. Places where our levels of trust in each other mitigate the effects of our fear-riddled brains. Detox centers where stress chemicals drain from our bodies, creating room for creativity and innovation to thrive.

The Legend is a Myth

History has championed the concept of fearless leaders. Brave and courageous souls who seemed undaunted by the dangers surrounding them. They marshal the troops and inspire them to defy their fear of death in order to face the enemy and secure victory.

But the fearless leader is a myth.

And the benefits of pushing our fears deep, deep inside so we can ignore them are also inflated, resulting in compounded stress and anxiety.

Instead, we are in desperate need of “Fear Less” leaders. Not leaders who simply fear less themselves, but who cultivate trust amongst those around them. They earn trust and promote behavior in others that, over time, creates a culture that trusts more… and fears less.

By Virtue of Virtues

It turns out, creativity can be a byproduct of virtue.

  • Keeping our promises
  • Treating others with respect
  • Being honest
  • Responding well to feedback (even negative feedback)
  • Showing empathy for others
  • Being open and vulnerable

These basic tenants can help foster trust, reduce fear and increase creativity.

The beautiful thing is you can start doing this today.

You.

Start.

Today.

Is Creative Discouragement Lingering in Your Workplace?

In his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie shared his experiences visiting elementary schools to show them his sculptures and talk about being an artist. As he took time away from his job at Hallmark Cards to visit students, MacKenzie would ask the children which ones considered themselves artists. Most in the younger classes would eagerly shoot their hands into the air in order to identify as artists. But MacKenzie noticed as the class age-levels increased, the number of self-identified artists shrunk. Ultimately, the sixth grade classes would only have one or two brave enough to raise their hands, but even they seemed anxious about being “outed” as an artist.

MacKenzie recognized schools were discouraging older students from pursuing creativity and art, designating those activities only suitable for younger kids. Instead, older children were encouraged to focus on “more important things” like math and science. MacKenzie observed that most companies perpetuated this belief by placing emphasis on efficiency and productivity, while doing anything creative was seen as “play time,” and discouraged during work hours.

But creativity is becoming more important to workers and companies alike. A recent survey by Adobe shows that roughly two-thirds of U.S. workers believe it is important to be creative at work. Meanwhile 88% believe business that invest in creativity are more likely to increase employee productivity and have happier employees. Additional research from Forrester shows a link between creativity and business results.

82% of businesses believe more creative companies gain greater business benefits like revenue growth and market share. – Forrester Research

While these statistics are compelling, workplaces don’t become more creative overnight. Creative discouragement can linger in hiding spots and sabotage efforts to foster creativity and innovation.

  • Leadership styles can undercut employee creativity, sending a message that activity is paramount and employees exist to take orders from the status quo instead of trying anything different
  • Pre-existing corporate cultures can make environments hostile to new ideas and creative efforts
  • Workplace designs can hamper group collaboration and individual focus while handcuffing employees to spaces that don’t support or adapt to their work style

Considering these factors, what would happen if Gordon MacKenzie were here today and could ask the “artists” in your office to raise their hands? How many would claim that title? How many would feel safe to identify as creative? Would they say their workplace encourages creativity or would they admit it discourages them from being creative?

As individuals and businesses start to recognize the benefits of fostering creativity, taking action to adapt leadership styles, culture and workplace design could make creativity your competitive advantage.

Seth Godin isn’t Exceptional

Throughout life, these are the lessons many of us learn from our experiences and upbringing:

  • Trust should be given sparingly.
  • It’s better to avoid being hurt than to be open by default.
  • Take all you may possibly need (and a bit extra for good measure) before it disappears.
  • Look out for yourself, because no one else will.
  • Plan every detail before trying something because others are waiting for you to misstep.
  • The world is made up of two kinds of people: the exceptional (insert famous celebrities, authors, speakers, philosophers, politicians, scientists and artists) and then there’s the rest of us.
  • The game is rigged, so play it safe and stay in your lane.

As former pro baseball player Vernon Law stated, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward”

I recently completed Seth Godin’s altMBA program and then had the opportunity to attend a gathering of folks from the 13 alumni classes. What I learned from all this is… Seth Godin isn’t exceptional. I’ll tell you why.

The altMBA

The altMBA is billed as “… an intensive, 4-week online workshop designed by Seth Godin for high-performing individuals who want to level up and lead.” The classes pushed me to take risks and push my work out the door before I felt it was perfect. There were times I produced more quality work than I had previously done in a month… in one day. The individuals who collaborated with me on group projects were extraordinarily sharp, skilled, insightful and thoughtful.

In the end, I didn’t just learn new principles, tools and skills. I discovered an imperative to do work that creates needed change in the world. For me, this is helping business leaders transform their management style, their company culture, and their space into a competitive advantage—unlocking the innovation and creativity of their people and themselves.

This has cultivated a greater sense of commitment to doing this work with the mindset and approach of a true professional. This isn’t just a side hustle or a hobby. Regardless of whether or not it occurs between 9-to-5, this is my work. 

The Alumni Gathering

The timing of my altMBA experience allowed me to attend the first gathering of alumni in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. The event was held at the remarkable meeting venue Purpl.

The people I met were as remarkable as the venue. They were extremely inspiring, generous, compassionate, authentic, vulnerable and kind. I can honestly say I have never encountered a large (175 or so) group of people like this before.

When I attend typical business events and meet new people, the introductions can be awkward as we gauge each other–trying to calibrate the conversation to impress the other person, while not exposing ourselves to unnecessary vulnerabilities. That didn’t happen at this gathering. There was a common understanding between each of us and each introduction felt more like a homecoming.

Alumni engaging in energetic (loud) conversations at the beginning of the day. Apologies to those who are distorted by my panoramic photo.

In anticipation of the event, I really thought being in the same room with Seth Godin would be my highlight. I didn’t anticipate how rewarding each conversation with another alumnus would be. I noticed Seth milling around just like one of the attendees. There was no line cued up to shake his hand, get an autograph or selfie. I found I couldn’t pay much attention to him because I was so engrossed in the fantastic stories each alumnus shared.

During the “formal” segments of the event, Seth spoke some. But there was more time given to alumni who shared “generous propositions” (like miniature TED Talks), and to alumni panels who shared thoughts on leading, conflict management and overcoming their doubt and fears. The panels were not facilitated by Seth. Instead, the superb Provost of altMBA, Kelli Woods and altMBA Coach Marie Schacht led the discussions effortlessly.

To wrap it up, Seth led us all through an exercise and demonstrated that the leaders we admire so much (Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, etc.) aren’t special. Instead, he said, “You are.”

And that’s when my mind changed.

I have always thought Seth was exceptional… he’s not. He isn’t the exception. He has developed a set of remarkable and powerful skills, but Seth showed us that we can all develop these skills through deliberate and committed practice. This changes how I view everything.

Exceptional or not, I am extremely indebted to Seth Godin, Wes Kao, Kelli Wood, Sam Miller, my coaches Paul Jun and Gravity Goldberg, and the rest of the altMBA team. They have shown me the list at the top of this post is not reality. They are each an example of how we can live a generous life, giving ourselves as a work of art to a world that desperately needs more in its galleries. Others may hurt us in the process, but we can’t let that fear rob the world of the exceptional gifts within each of us.

So yes, perhaps life gives us the test first and the lesson afterward. But the key is knowing what that lesson is.

What Do You Want?

If you don’t know what you want…

  • The menu will tell you.
  • Your boss will tell you.
  • The items on sale will tell you.
  • Your spouse will tell you.
  • The best seller list will tell you.
  • Your iPhone apps will notify you.
  • The news media will tell you.
  • A consultant will tell you.
  • The authorities will tell you.
  • The next ad will tell you.
  • A televangelist will tell you, on behalf of God.
  • Your financial advisor will tell you.
  • Amazon and Netflix will recommend it to you.
  • Your friends will tell you.
  • The point-of-purchase signs will tell you.

The problem is none of these sources should know you as well as you know yourself. Therefore, they won’t tell you what YOU want. Once you realize this, you also can realize what they WILL tell you.

We’re all susceptible to the power of suggestion. This isn’t a big deal when you’re deciding between a cobb salad or grilled salmon. It is monumental when you’re deciding on a major purchase, a career path or a lifestyle change.

It’s one thing to say, “I know what I want. How can you help me?” It’s another thing to be a blank slate for anyone else to write on. I’m not talking about being closed minded. I’m talking about knowing yourself. Then you can be intentional about discovering something new.

Sometimes we avoid knowing ourselves. It could be decision fatigue or intellectual laziness. We may have placed our trust wholly on another person or institution. It’s likely related to fear. Fear that if we know what we want, we’ll ultimately be disappointed when we don’t get it. Fear that we will get it and it won’t fulfill our needs. Fear that we’ll make the wrong choices.

But the tradeoff for ignoring what we want is huge. We surrender our agency. We abdicate the throne of our own lives and let the list above take turns in the seat. This is a dereliction of duty. Not just to ourselves, but to others who need us to bring our whole selves to our work, our homes and our communities.

So, what do you want? Maybe to know that, you should start by wanting to know thyself.

The Myth of Bad Ideas

No such thing as bad ideas? Tell her.

“There’s no such thing as a bad idea.”

We say this often when we are soliciting ideas from others. I’ve heard people saying this during brainstorming sessions. We want people to be unafraid. We want them to understand there’s no consequences when they share their ideas. We’re telling them all ideas are equal.

We’re lying… and we’re wrong.

Lie #1 – All ideas are equal

No they’re not. Some are better than others. Unlike Santa Claus or the Boogie Man, bad ideas do indeed exist. They are hastily typed into emotionally-charged emails. They hang in your closet. They fill fast food restaurant menus. Bad ideas not only exist, they are everywhere.

Lie #2 – There are no consequences

I’m sorry, there are consequences to sharing your ideas. You may be embarrassed. There’s a chance someone will snicker, scoff or simply ignore your idea altogether. We all know this is true, so we should stop being disingenuous by pretending otherwise.

We are wrong about fear

Finally, no matter what we do, people will be afraid. We are wrong to expect them to be unafraid. We can only hope there is something more powerful than that fear, like the desire to contribute, to matter or to add meaning. We can mitigate the risks, but don’t waste your time trying to reassure people there is nothing to fear. The fear is there. It is real. Now, what are we going to do with it?

What can we do?

If bad ideas do exist (and we established they definitely do), then what can we do to help people share their ideas more freely?

Invite their bad ideas.

Let them know, “We want your bad ideas. That’s the best place to start, because bad ideas lead us to good ideas.” In fact, start the idea generation with a few bad ideas of your own. Get people talking about what could be done to improve your bad idea and make it better. Pretty soon, some good ideas come forward and develop.

Bad ideas are worms.

Nobody wants to eat a worm (not even a fried worm). But when you’re fishing, you need bait. So, you start with a worm on your hook. You put it in the right waters and you end up eating a nice fish dinner later.

So, next time you want people to share their ideas, don’t resort to lying. Don’t deny the existence of bad ideas. Invite bad ideas, because they are bait for great ideas hiding beneath the surface.

A Call for Creative Leadership

Creative Leadership

What are you doing today to advance the creative competence of your team, your department and your company? Are you making it easier or harder for others to generate and share ideas? How do others view you? As a catalyst for accelerating projects… or the place they go to die?

Leaders rely on their people to bring their whole person to the table every day. They look for talent, commitment and courage from their people. They get frustrated when these same people hide behind excuses or lose momentum.

Employees, on the other hand, get frustrated with leadership. They want autonomy, with enough feedback and direction to be helpful. They want to see progress and growth in themselves. Last (on this list anyway), they want to have a sense of purpose in the work they do. In his book Drive, Dan Pink identifies these as the three motivators–autonomy, mastery and purpose–that increase performance and satisfaction. Yet, these are missing ingredients in most working environments, and employees aren’t getting what they need from leadership.

Here’s the problem when we talk about leaders and leadership in this way… leadership is too broad a term. It has been misapplied and overused. It means too many different things to people, so it is no longer meaningful. We all have experience with good leaders and bad leaders. But in both situations–good or bad–we still characterize them the same: as leaders.

I don’t want to be cynical, so I will focus on what I call Creative Leaders. These leaders aren’t artists in the strictest definition, but they are creative because they create. They are constructive. They inspire, encourage, facilitate and foster a similar creativity in their people. How do they do this?

They remove the obstacles that hold their people back from growth. When they see it as helpful, they add obstacles that foster growth.

They give their people structure (physically and organizationally) in a way that helps them gain a sense of choice and control in how, when, where and with whom they work.

Creative leaders are storytellers. They share a narrative that communicates the purpose of their organization and helps their people find a sense of purpose in that same story.

Designer/technologist/businessman John Maeda has a more extensive list.

Maeda: characteristics of a creative leader

Maeda has been riffing on Creative Leadership since 2009. Maybe this isn’t a new idea, but it is needed today.

We need Creative Leaders today because efficient and productive companies are being toppled by innovative upstarts. Industries are changing before our eyes.  We need new and insightful ideas from our people. We need environments that cultivate the right ideas and help us evolve to address the changing marketplace.

This is why Creative Leadership is an idea whose time has come.

And it is an idea I hope to spread.

Creativity and the Business of Change

Creativity gets a bad rap in the business world. Some see it as arts and crafts. They think it encourages employees to goof off. It’s silly and it doesn’t contribute to the bottom line.

They assume creativity is for artists, not businesspeople.

This mentality misses a few key points.

Everyone is Creative

(Don’t tell this to artists. They like to feel special.) When I say everyone is creative, I don’t mean we all should be wearing berets and making oil paintings of lily ponds. I mean it in the sense that we are all meant to create; whether creating something practically from nothing, or combining two things to create a third, new thing. Even highly analytical people exhibit creativity, it just looks more like invention than artistry. Once you see creativity as more than something that fills the art museum galleries, then you can easily recognize its value in business.

Creativity Fuels a Critical Businesses Need

But, creativity isn’t just valuable to businesses, it is critical. Why is this? Because, creativity fuels change, and there’s never been greater need for change than there is today. The rate of change in technology, markets, trends, and more continues to accelerate, and puts pressure on businesses to adjust so they meet those changes. New businesses naturally encounter change as they have to learn and evolve to survive. Established businesses need to embrace change so they can innovate and stay ahead of market disruption.

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
–General Eric Shinseki, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff

This necessary change won’t happen without someone seeing the need for change, recognizing what needs to change, and envisioning what it should change into. These are creative skills, and the business leaders are cultivating these creative skills are also preparing their organizations to evolve and grow so they meet new challenges, survive and thrive as the business landscape around them changes.

Where Did All the Dinosaurs Go?

Look around and you won’t see any dinosaurs. They probably thought creativity was a silly excuse to goof off. Now they’re reduced to bones displayed in museums, which may be more than what will remain of businesses that believe the same.

If that’s a depressing thought, maybe this book will cheer you up.

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