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Three Insights on Creative Leadership from Creativity, Inc.

Over the past week I’ve been listening to Creativity, Inc. by Pixar founder and CEO Ed Catmull on my morning walks. As much as has been written about the company over the past several years, there is something refreshing about getting insights into Pixar’s culture and mindset directly from one of its leaders.

Over the past week I’ve been listening to Creativity, Inc. by Pixar founder and Disney/Pixar President Ed Catmull on my morning walks.

As much as has been written about the company over the past several years, there is something refreshing about getting insights into Pixar’s culture and mindset directly from one of its leaders. Here are three big insights that have caused me to pause and reflect:

1. Candor is king.
Catmull spends a lot of time elaborating on the importance of candor in the daily functioning of Pixar. (Not honesty, as he is quick to point out. Honesty seems to be more of an issue of moral rightness, whereas candor is about courage and conviction.) He writes that everyone in the company is encouraged to speak their mind whenever they see a potential problem cropping up with a project.

“Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”

 

2. Everyone feels like an imposter – sometimes.
Catmull candidly admitted that he only recently overcame the sense that he was just “faking it” and would soon be found out. This is a common issue with creative pros, though we tend to believe that it goes away once a measure of success has been achieved. In my experience working with creatives and leaders at the highest levels of the business world, let me assure you that it often does not. The key is to follow your convictions even in the face of the inevitable uncertainty. While the fear of being “found out” never goes away, you learn over time to deal with it through action rather than allowing it to rob you of your engagement.

“I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.”

 

3. The process is the people.
There is often a lot of emphasis in creative organizations on getting the process right, but we fail to realize that the reason processes exist at all is to facilitate the work of people in the organization. You cannot rely on the process unless the people of your organization feel vested in the end product, and will work the process tirelessly to create something excellent. Catmull says that getting the right people into the organization has always trumped ideas and process at Pixar, because with the right people in place everything else will eventually align.

“‘What’s the point of hiring smart people,’ we asked, ‘if you don’t empower them to fix what is broken?'”

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Last modified: December 3, 2022

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