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.




Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

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