The most fascinating parts of Creativity, Inc. have to do with failure. Let me unpack a few of Ed Catmull’s points about failure.

1. Leaders must overcome fear.
At the heart of failure is fear. Leaders must overcome fear of failure themselves, and they must loosen its grip on their followers. As Catmull puts it, “The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure—to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts” (p 123). Failure is an opportunity for learning, and an opportunity for creativity. In fact, Catmull says the ideal is to create a culture where staff are empowered—not only to explore new areas, to have room for experimentation and to fail without major consequences, but to break outside constraints to solve problems. There’s an enormous upside to such empowerment: “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 pathways and then charging down them” (p 111). Some of the ways Pixar creates these avenues:

  • Animated shorts, which have lower budgets and give new directors more opportunity to learn story telling and explore the range of technology.
  • Pixar University, which offers classes for all staff across the company to learn drawing, scene lighting or management.
  • Notes Day, where the entire organization once took a day off to work toward solutions to a problem that impacted them all.

2. Leaders must respond well to failure.
The book is worth reading just to catch the story of how an overly-enthusiastic programmer at Pixar accidentally erased the entire Toy Story 2 movie from the company servers, and how a rogue staffer who had previously set up some backdoor work processes managed to save it. When I shared the story of the accidental deletion with my nine-year-old daughter, her first reaction was, “I’ll bet he got fired!” That’s how most CEOs would respond, and that’s the best way to undermine everything you’ve been preaching. Catmull says if employees are given freedom to experiment, they should never be punished for mistakes. “Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions—and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure” (p 125).

3. The desire to avoid failure will doom your organization.
One of Ed Catmull’s most exciting moments came when Disney bought Pixar and put him and chief creative officer John Lasseter in charge of both animation studios. They found Disney Animation was paralyzed by institutional fear. “For too long, the leaders… placed a higher value on error prevention than anything else” (p 264). There’s no way to create original ideas or to liberate your employees to innovate if error prevention is your driver. That was the case when Disney went 16 years without an animated film coming in first at the box office.

The irony for Pixar, a company that has hit number one with every film, is that they consider failure to be inevitable. They therefore plan for failure. Yes, they guard against it, but they aren’t paralyzed by it. “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 outthinking it—dooms you to fail” (p 109).

4. Failure is best done quickly.
How does Pixar keep from failure at the box office? By allowing—or even forcing—failure to happen earlier, when consequences are fewer. Catmull says every film that goes on to success is born an “ugly baby.” It needs a lot of work, and it would be shut down if held up against any standards of success.

Instead of trying to overplan or avoid failure, it’s better to make a decision and see where it goes. This is true for directors and the film-making process, where Catmull says there’s an upside to decisiveness: “The time they’ve saved by not gnashing their teeth about whether they’re on the right course comes in handy when they hit a dead end and need to reboot. It isn’t enough to pick a path—you must go down it” (p 111).

Catmull also says it’s true at the top of the company. “Leadership is about making your best guess and hurrying up about it so if it’s wrong, there’s still time to change course” (p 228). Catmull intuitively pushes many of the tenets of design thinking. It’s a “ready–fire–aim–fire again” approach that takes a best guess and moves forward with it, knowing you have a better chance of hitting the target the second time because of the lessons learned by missing early.

The beauty of Ed Catmull’s approach at Pixar and Disney is that he raised up an army of empowered problem solvers. That approach allowed him to serve as president over two animation studios at the same time. Here’s how he sums up his leadership style:

If we allow more people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate (and don’t vilify) their mistakes, then we enable a larger set of problems to be addressed. When a random problem pops up in this scenario, it causes no panic, because the threat of failure has been defanged. The individual or the organization responds with its best thinking, because the organization is not frozen, fearful, waiting for approval…. If you push the ownership of problems down into the ranks of an organization, then everyone feels free (and motivated) to attempt to solve whatever problems they face, big or small (p 164).

My summer reading was pretty diverse. It started and ended with Jesus, then ran on a Second World War theme and borrowed inspiration from the Global Leadership Summit:

  • Christ for Real, by Charles Price
  • The War Magician, by David Fisher
  • Churchill: A Study in Greatness, by Geoffrey Best
  • Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull
  • Jesus on Leadership, by Gene Wilkes
  • Extreme Prayer, by Greg Pruett

One overarching theme was really impressed on me through this reading. I was inspired as I read the accounts of Jasper Maskelyne and Winston Churchill. In one case, such creativity organized toward creating illusions that turned the war momentum. In the second case, such sheer determination and eccentric energy focused in one direction. But something bothered me about the fact that everyone looked to these men, and their teams were ineffective without them. These biographies fall firmly in the camp of Thomas Carlyle, who said in the 1840s, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Wikipedia describes the resulting “Great Man Theory” this way:

a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

Since I was young, I’ve enjoyed biographies about these giants in history who turned the course of history. But I’m getting a bit jaded.

It wasn’t until I read Creativity, Inc. that I put my finger on how I have changed. In Ed Catmull’s critique of Walt Disney, I began to wonder why the legendary animation studio become so ineffective after the great man passed away. The expectations were so high, and so much revolved around Disney’s demanding, energetic presence that the studio just couldn’t keep going afterwards.

When Walt Disney was alive, he was such a singular talent that it was difficult for anyone to conceive of what the company would be like without him. And sure enough, after his death, there wasn’t anybody who came close to filling his shoes. For years, Disney employees attempted to keep his spirit alive by constantly asking themselves, “What would Walt do?” Perhaps they thought that if they asked that question they would come up with something original, that they would remain true to Walt’s pioneering spirit. In fact, this kind of thinking only accomplished the opposite. Because it looked backward, not forward, it tethered the place to the status quo. A pervasive fear of change took root. (p165)

Instead, Ed Catmull’s goal at Pixar—and later at Walt’s animation studio—was to create a culture that would produce greatness even after the founders and visionaries were gone. He wanted to build a company with interchangeable parts. Some of the ideas he explores in his book:

  • “My job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it” (p xv).
  • “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture… wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job” (p 65).
  • “All we could do at Disney, I knew, was create a healthy creative culture and see what developed” (p 274).

He begins by talking about the importance of finding the right people and getting them to work together in a way that produces great ideas. He certainly accomplished that by assembling an amazing collection of creative directors at Pixar. He then talks about the goal of management to constantly empower those people to solve creative problems together. He promotes the ideas W. Edwards Deming pushed at Toyota, referring to “a democratic central tenet: You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.” (p 51)

Ultimately, Catmull’s greatest success was to bring the ideas of candor and empowerment to the culture of Disney, leading to successive #1 films—”Tangled” and “Frozen”—after 16 years without a box office hit. Rather than replace the existing staff to accomplish this feat, he proudly points out that the studio “was still populated by most of the same people John [Lasseter] and I had encountered when we arrived” (p274).

Let me come full circle, as my summer reading list did. Jesus did the same thing as Ed Catmull did. Or rather, Ed did what Jesus did. He took a ragtag group of fishermen, zealots and tax collectors and spent three years challenging their mindset, changing their hearts and establishing a new culture. He certainly made himself dispensable and created a structure where interchangeable parts would keep the movement going for at least 2,000 years. Granted, we don’t have all the same tools he had available.

And yet, we do. As Jesus told his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12) and sending the Holy Spirit (v16). Though he probably wouldn’t say it this way, Catmull simply expounds a form of servant leadership that originally came from Jesus. There’s just something about having someone else say the same things again that makes them come alive and allows us to see them with fresh eyes. For that, I’m grateful to Ed Catmull.

I’m not sure I want to read any more “great men” biographies. I want to read about men and women who built great systems and great cultures that continue to the next generation.

A different kind of leadership is going to be needed in North America in the next decade.

The Church in Canada is moving into a different phase, with less overt impact on the government and society. If it recognizes and embraces this minority status, it can have even greater impact on the culture as a minority voice. This will require a different kind of leadership than we’ve needed in past decades where leaders struggled to engage a Church that enjoyed its comfort and fell into complacency. Now the culture, societal pressures and even government regulations are forcing the Church to be fully engaged, standing for religious freedom and expression, “exclusionary” truths and marginalized people. The gospel needs to be lived out clearly by the institutional Church and the people of God. Leadership will be critical in guiding the Church through this change of approach.

In the Bible translation world, leadership is going to get increasingly difficult. We’ve weathered storms over the years that threatened to destroy us, and some of those storms have intensified in the last couple of years. If I’m correct, the clouds will continue to build. Why? Because of Vision 2025. We don’t often look at it this way, but how would Satan view a vision to empower a sustainable worldwide Bible translation movement, with the specific goal of starting translation in the remaining languages that need it by 2025? What else is that vision but an all-out offensive on the kingdom of darkness? Before 1999, we poked and prodded, slowly advancing the kingdom. This vision plans to expose every dark corner of this planet to the light of God’s Word within this decade. Many of the places we will be going in the next ten years are longtime strongholds. These changes call for bold, courageous leadership.

In short, our tactics and our leadership must be fashioned for wartime, not peacetime. The problem is that we’ve always been at war, as much of the rest of Church outside the West could have told us. The greatest victory our enemy has accomplished is in convincing such a large part of the Western Church that we were at peace. The enemy has taken vast tracts of territory while we slept.

Fortunately, there’s some good news. The Bible has plenty to say about how to live and lead in wartime. In fact, little of the Bible concerns itself with how the Church should operate in peacetime. Peace is something spoken of as hope for the future, not something we’ll attain on this earth.

Second, this context is very familiar to the Church around the world. That means we can learn leadership skills from our brothers and sisters outside the West.

Over the next few posts, we’ll examine the leadership implications of what the Bible says about wartime leadership.

I inherited from my father a love for word play. I love palindromes, Spoonerisms and contronyms and I love verbing nouns. At this time of year, I like to verb the word “Christmas.” In other languages, it’s easy. For instance, the Germans verb Weinachten. The famous German poem that I memorized in High School, “Christkindl`s Weihnachtsgedichte,” includes the line, “es Weinachtet sehr,” which literally means, “It Christmases a lot.”

The English language has always been adaptive, ready to embrace new words. If you look online, English uses of the verb form today include towns getting Christmased-up and people getting Christmased out. Perhaps it’s catching. But it’s not just a new phenomenon. I found this fantastic poem from 1887:

The Verbing Man

“Oh, yes I Christmased,” says the man,
Who skips from verb to noun;
I dined and turkeyed à la mode,
And curry sauced in town.

I restauranted everywhere,
I whiskyed, beered and aled;
Cigared I on Havanas rare,
And on Regalias galed.I

New Yeared, too, on viands rich
And I champagned myself;
Or Tomed and Jerryed — can’t tell which,
Expenditured my pelf.

I resolutioned on that day,
As spirits throbbed my head;
But when the pangs next panged away,
I just cocktailed instead.

—Texas Siftings
[reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 3, 1887, p.9]

Let me get to my point. We’re well into the Christmas season, and the annual grumbling has begun. One thing you can count on every December is the Christians complaining that nobody’s recognizing Christmas anymore. Cashiers and waitresses won’t say, “Merry Christmas.” Cards opt for “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” Now we have Holiday trees, Holiday spirit and Holiday blend coffee.

One song probably grates on these Christmas defenders more than any other: “Holiday Like You Mean It.” The CBC has been running it on radio and TV this month. (If you haven’t gotten the song stuck in your head yet, you can find it here.) Rob Wells captured the essence of the Holiday season: festive, jolly and merry; presents, lights and bells. The fact that the Holiday has reached the point of verbing tells me the culture has crossed a line. December is the month to Holiday as we used to Christmas. And I for one am grateful that we’ve finally gotten to this point of honesty.

As I was wandering around the Eaton Centre in Toronto at the beginning of December (with that jingle stuck in my head), I realized I’m happy to tease this mashup season apart. Let’s let Holidaying refer to the rampant consumerism and materialism, the hustle and bustle and general busyness of the season, even the Santas and reindeer and elves.

As believers, I say we let them have the Holiday and we take back Christmas. Rather than defend the label, let them move on to new terminology for the season they’ve co-opted while we return to the real reason for Christmas: God coming to earth to be with us and live among us. Let’s redeem the term and let Christmas be a reflective and joyful time, centred around Christ and the fact that he gave. Then let’s renew our commitment to His mission: to be light in a dark world.

The well-known conclusion of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol says of Scrooge that, “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” In other words, after his transformation, Scrooge Christmased well. How did he do that? He took on the joy of generosity, his heart laughed, and “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them.”

Let the world Holiday while we Christmas. As we do that as a minority Church, we’ll stand out against the culture rather than fighting to conform the culture to our ideals.

Christians, let’s Christmas like we mean it.

I’ve described this overlap period with the current president as the best of both worlds: I can think strategically without having to worry about any of the day-to-day management of Wycliffe. However, if I try to strategize without first internalizing the corporate culture, I’ll fall prey to Drucker’s axiom:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

So how do I steep myself in Wycliffe’s corporate culture so that I can maximize my time on strategery? Like many offices, Wycliffe in Calgary is difficult to define as a block. It has many subcultures. So, whether it’s a new organization, a new country or a new department, here are some practical ideas to absorb the essence of organizational culture.

1. Experiential learning. I’m on a quest to jump in and identify with as many subcultures as I can. Two clear ones are cycling to work and joining the WTHL, the Wycliffe Table Hockey League. I have now biked to the office four times, the first of which came in 36 degree temperatures. That’s soft core. Cycling to work in the snow earns you more points.

I also watched by first table hockey game. I wish I’d had a camera to capture how serious they take this sport. I’ll post a photo next time I have an opportunity, but let me give you a taste. They have hockey cards for each team and a commemorative program that tracks every kind of statistics. At this point, I’m choosing to remain an observer rather than fall prey to their slap shots and wise cracks.

To take in the culture, don’t hold back. Experience the way your new colleagues celebrate. Spend time with them away from the office. Of course, there’s no replacement for the depth forged from experiencing a crisis together, but there are a lot of things you can do to seek breadth in the interim.

2. Read the same books. When I was in Orlando, a new leader on the recruitment team asked me what books the leadership team were reading. He wanted to know the way they think and take on the vocabulary. “Easy, I said. Read Jim Collins and Patrick Lencioni.” In Calgary, the Board and Leadership Team are now reading When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Recent reads have been Leading Cross-Culturally, by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, by Ruth Haley Barton. These books shape the way leaders think, talk and lead.

3. Ask questions. Speaking of Lencioni, his recommendation in Getting Naked is to ask lots of questions without regard to how they come across. The reason adults are slower to learn is their concern about appearing naive or dumb. I’m hoping most of my dumb questions will come before I take office. But I’m also hoping I won’t care more about my pride after I take office than about understanding my context.

4. Find out what influences them. If you want to join conversations at breaks, you have to know the terminology and people who influence them. For instance, media. In previous jobs, I’ve absorbed Survivor, American Idol, and Napoleon Dynamite. At church in Florida, if you weren’t playing Fantasy Football, you could find yourself cut off from fellowship with other men every Fall. When I retired from playing in 2007 (after winning my league twice in a row), I had to at least keep up on a few stats so that I could join the conversations. In Calgary, it’s the same way with hockey. Key influences include Hockey Night in Canada, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Corner Gas.

What have you done to immerse yourself in organizational culture? Lend me your ideas. I’ll probably put them to good use.

A couple of months ago, missiologist Ed Stetzer spoke at CrossPointe Church Orlando. As he read familiar words from 1 Peter, he freely substituted the word “manager” for “steward.” It’s probably a good shift for us, because we don’t live in a world of stewards. It’s not a context we’re familiar with. Managers we understand. Let’s look at I Peter 4:10 in the NKJV, using Stetzer’s subsitution:

As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good managers of the manifold grace of God.

What Peter is saying here is that when we use our gifts in ministry, we’re managing grace. For starters, he’s referring to the personal management of the gift we’re given, but I believe Peter goes further than the individual interpretation we Westerners are used to. As there is throughout the New Testament, there’s an others-focus in Peter’s admonition. I think it’s fair to apply “managers” in an organizational sense.

Perhaps this is a good time to refresh ourselves on what management is. Drawing from Robert Banks and Bernice Ledbetter, as interpreted by Sherwood Lingenfelter, we might say managing means:

  • to organize
  • to control
  • to maintain focus
  • to allocate resources around

The point of managing is that we don’t own the resources we are responsible for. We are to have a stewardship mindset toward God’s grace. And yet, every day we have the capacity to manage badly. We have plenty of opportunity to hold back the distribution of grace in our office, church and home cultures. As it’s easy to suppress or misdirect our own gifts, we do the same within our teams — sometimes in the exercise of our own gifts. It’s an easy temptation to try to manipulate behavior in others by controlling grace, withholding approval or granting favor unequally. But Peter calls us instead to be proactive, godly, open-handed stewards of that grace.

I remember visiting another mission organization a few years ago and admiring their core value of “a culture of grace.” In Wycliffe’s own journey toward building intentional diversity among our staff, one phrase that has become part of our common lexicon is to “increase our grace capacity.” What does that look like? How do we manage grace in that kind of high-capacity culture?

  • We meet failure with forgiveness and consider it an opportunity to grow.
  • We are careful to consider strengths in building diverse teams, recognizing that God’s gifts are distributed broadly, and God doesn’t just speak to the boss.
  • We honor others by focusing, harmonizing and enhancing the gifts God has given them.
  • We treat others as we want to be treated, forgive others as we want to be forgiven and love others as we want to be loved.

Who wouldn’t want to work in an environment like that?

William Pitt the Younger details the life of “a penniless twenty-three-year-old with no previous experience in office” who was elected to England’s House of Commons in 1782. Within 18 months, he was prime minister. It’s a story that captured my interest since seeing a rendition of it in the movie Amazing Grace. At one point, author William Hague — a current member of parliament — asks a question I want to consider as well:

How was it that opinion in the eighteenth century would accept youthful seniority to an extent inconceivable two centuries later?

Was it really very different back then? He notes that 100 members of parliament in the early 1780s were under age thirty. 100 under thirty?!! It wasn’t just in politics. “The number of young prodigies in many disparate fields was far greater than it is today.” For example:

  • Alexander Pope wrote his first verses aged twelve, and was famous at twenty-three;
  • Henry Fielding’s plays were being performed in London when he was twenty-one;
  • Adam Smith was a Professor of Logic at twenty-eight;
  • the evangelist George Whitefield was preaching to crowds of tens of thousands in London when aged twenty-five;
  • Isaac Newton had commenced his revolutionary advances in science in the previous century at the age of twenty-five;
  • and Mozart had composed symphonies when eight years old and completed tours of Europe at the ripe old age of fifteen.

I guess we could point to Mark Zuckerberg and other internet pioneers, or Hewlett, Packard, Dell, Gates and Jobs in the generation before. But there seems to be more resistance to young leaders today, especially in established fields, businesses, organizations… or politics. The fact is that in most cases where a young leaders reaches high position, it’s because he or she founded the company.

Hague wonders aloud what was unique in that culture that so much was accomplished by people so young. Why did they get so much greater opportunity and empowerment? He explores a number of ideas, including the influence of aristocracy in bestowing “instant credibility.” Perhaps the most obvious example was a group of twentysomething monarchs in Europe, but it extended to people like William and Thomas Pitt building on their father’s name and reknown. It wasn’t just privilege; it was also early exposure. William Pitt the Younger gained incredible oratory skills at the feet of his prime minister father.

Those were important factors, but I think Hague nails it in his conclusion:

Perhaps the greater risk of early death produced an impulse of young brilliance, and certainly the intensive use of private tutors added to it.

To put it in today’s terms, the two greatest factors were urgency and mentoring. We no longer fear death before age 40. To require a young person to put in time in a job before taking leadership is a luxury they didn’t enjoy back then. On the other side of the coin, young people felt like they had only a few good years to contribute, so they gave it their all very quickly. Pitt was an extreme case, much of his brevity self-imposed. His physician concluded that he “died of old age at forty-six as much as if he had been ninety.”

Pitt’s private tutor was a man who would become a prominent minister in the Church of England. His father was prime minister. These mentors shaped a young man who dreamed of parliament as his next step, straight out of college.

My question today is this: Is there room in your organization for young leaders? In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page challenges how leaders are selected.

The typical pattern for moving people into leadership positions must be changed. First, nice people who are good at what they do are thrust or promoted into a position of leadership, without regard for their ability, or sometimes even their desire, to perform in a leadership capacity. Secondly, they are evaluated on their ability to produce short-term results for the organization and finally, if at all, on their ability to lead people. Yet this ability to lead others is the long-term basis on which those results can be sustained or improved upon.

If leadership gifting, competence and calling are all clear at an early age, why aren’t more organizations willing to allow young people to work in their sweet spots rather than promoting good practicioners with seniority? Experience in a field is simply not the same as leadership gifting. So, do we feel an urgency to find the best leaders available, to pour into them and to give them space? Until we do, we’re not going to gain the benefits of this generation’s William Pitts, Adam Smiths and George Whitefields.