Great man theory

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.

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When WHY and HOW get together

I want to look at two more partnerships where one leader clearly eclipsed the other, but couldn’t have been successful without the other guy. In both cases, one had the clear ability to originate vision but didn’t have the ability to make it happen without his older brother.

The spokesman

In the third and fourth chapters of Exodus, when God appeared to Moses to tell him that “I have seen” the oppression of Israel and “I have come down to rescue them,” Moses prepared to watch the fireworks. But he didn’t like God’s conclusion: “Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt.” Nice twist at the end. Total set up.

Moses reacted badly. He argued for an entire chapter before closing with his speech impediment and begging God to send someone else. But God didn’t relent, instead pairing him with his brother Aaron as his mouthpiece. “You will stand in the place of God for him, telling him what to say.” As Moses whispered the WHY in his ear, Aaron spent the next 16 chapters making the public speeches. Eventually, Moses appears to have gathered the courage to make the speeches himself, but the partnership was cemented by that point. Moses became CEO and judge while his brother became high priest, together leading the people through 40 years of preparation for getting their own land. Moses gets the credit, but clearly wouldn’t have had the confidence if he hadn’t had a confidante working shoulder to shoulder with him.

The older Disney

“If it hadn’t been for my big brother, I’d have been in jail several times for checks bouncing,” Walt Disney said in 1957. Roy was a banker, eight years older than Walt but in awe of Walt’s talent and imagination. He quit his job to follow Walt’s WHY, because he knew someone needed to guard against Walt’s tendency toward risk and neglecting business affairs. As one biographer put it, “Walt Disney dreamed, drew and imagined. Roy stayed in the shadow, forming an empire.” While Walt created Mickey Mouse, Roy started the distribution company and the merchandising business that made him so widely loved.

After recounting this powerful Disney collaboration in Start with Why, Simon Sinek concludes:

In nearly every case of a person or an organization that has gone on to inspire people and do great things, there exists this special partnership between WHY and HOW.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Herb Kelleher and Rollin King. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, who would follow up King’s inspiring speeches with the line, “let me tell you what that means for tomorrow morning.” So, let’s hear it for the HOW guy. WHY guys would be nothing without them.