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).

Having examined the defensive positioning and offensive weaponry of our warfare in previous blog posts, I want to return to my main point. How do we as leaders respond to these attacks, these schemes, these tactics? What does wartime leadership look like, when others are depending on us and looking to our lead? How can we assist our followers and our organizations in fighting back appropriately?

I think it’s appropriate to look at Nehemiah as a case study. The first half of the book of Nehemiah lays out the man’s extensive work to rebuild a wall to protect a city long-term, while at the same time using his builders as armed guards to keep watch against local enemies. The attack never came. Nehemiah was successful, and through his visionary servant leadership, the wall was completed in 52 days.

But as I read through the book recently, it struck me that the attack did come. It wasn’t one large military force coming at the gates or besieging the walls; it was a thousand darts that came from unexpected places. This is my partial list:

This list is much more devastating and effective than sticks and stones. It’s amazing how fear of shame, derision and jeering can keep the mightiest leader firmly in his chair. Nehemiah could have held onto his position in Persia and considered himself there “for such a time as this.” But his calling was different than Esther’s. By challenging the status quo and stepping up to lead the change himself, Nehemiah put his own reputation on the line. He risked not only his position and his safety from outside attack; he risked internal attack if his followers gave way. For an interesting parallel, consider what Moses put up with as he led over a million men, women and children through the wilderness.

So how did Nehemiah circumvent, undermine and defy the attacks of his enemies? We can learn an awful lot from his example. Here are a few key lessons.

1. God awareness
Nehemiah was constantly aware of God’s role in his success. When the king granted his request, he knew it was the result of prayer, because “the good hand of my God was upon me” (2:8). When it came time for Nehemiah to get everyone on board his vision to rebuild the walls, his punch line was his testimony: “I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me” (2:18). They were convinced. Of course, when the wall was finished in a remarkable 52 days, he claimed no credit. Instead, Nehemiah said it was obvious even to their enemies “that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (6:16).

Nehemiah constantly pointed his followers back to the Lord, inspiring them with God’s greatness (4:14), encouraging them that God would fight for them (4:20), challenging them with the fear of God (5:9), and decisively dealing with sin as treachery against God (13:27). It seems clear that the courage he consistently demonstrated came from his constant awareness of God’s presence and a sense that he would be held accountable as a leader. That same courage is available to us. It starts with the same awareness.

2. Never get undressed
In the busiest, most stressful part of the project, the threat of attack imminent, Nehemiah decreed that everyone must stay in Jerusalem for the night as a guard for the city. Then he noted that they kept their weapons within reach, and “none of us took off our clothes” (4:23). If you haven’t had time to read my last blog post on the right clothing, now’s a good time to read that. When we realize that we are at war, we don’t ever let our guard down. We continue to protect ourselves and our families with truth, righteousness, readiness through the gospel of peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. We don’t ever take off compassion, kindness, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love.

Have you seen the scene in Saving Private Ryan where, in the thick of battle, a bullet clangs off a soldier’s helmet? He takes off his helmet to marvel at the dent, only to fall to another shot? If we take off our armor even for a moment, we are incredibly vulnerable.

3. Practice prayer rhythms
Nehemiah’s prayer life certainly included prayer and fasting marathons during times of waiting (ch 1), but his day-to-day management was stabilized by a prayer reflex that helped him handle difficult situations:

  • When he was almost paralyzed by fear before the king, he sent up a quick prayer to God (2:4).
  • He took out on God his rage at his enemies, rather than letting the people see it (4:4-5).
  • When he heard of new plots, his response was twofold: prayer and setting a guard (4:9).
  • His sentence prayer at the end of chapter 5 suggests that his generosity in sharing his table wasn’t without personal cost of some kind.
  • When he exposed plots against himself, he took strength from the Lord (6:9) and trusted God to pay his enemies back (6:14).
  • I believe it was this rhythm of prayer that allowed him to see and understand the plot against him in 6:10-13. Discernment comes from time spent with the Lord.

It’s in that communing, that constant awareness of the Lord that you learn to hear His voice for encouragement, wisdom and venting.

4. Face the problems head-on
Sitcoms have overdone a common storyline: someone who needs to have a difficult conversation, but they constantly avoid it and choose the easy path until the problem blows up to comic proportions. I find those storylines incredibly frustrating. Leadership is about tackling the tough issues head-on. That’s what Nehemiah did in chapter 5 when class warfare raised its ugly head. When he discovered the rich were making profit out of the desperation of the poor, Nehemiah wasted no time bringing this exploitation to light and challenging the rich (5:6-7). By using his own example, deliberately choosing not to assert his rights, he managed to do it in a way that brought them on board, to the point that they closed the matter with a worship service together!

In chapter 13, he took on another problem with similar forthrightness, but with a different approach. This time he evicted a resident of the temple, confronted officials, warned and threatened merchants, and then cursed, beat and pulled out the hair of Jews who knowingly committed sin. There’s a progression of increasing anger, frustration and violence, punctuated by frequent prayers for God to remember him for these deeds. His constant refrain reveals his motives: the fear of God trumped fear of people.

As Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Ultimately, Nehemiah had one audience, and he never let the fear of man hold him back from what he needed to do. As David put it, “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps 56:11)

Here’s the bottom line: anyone doing “a great work” (6:3) is going to face attack, and we can learn a lot from the way Nehemiah approached his mission. If you’re in the middle of a swarm of fiery darts, don’t give up. It’s not about you; it’s about God from start to finish.

For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose. (Phil 2:13)

In my chronological reading through the Bible, I’ve arrived at the book of Nehemiah—a remarkable study of leadership. Many others have preached, blogged and written on the leadership principles gleaned from this case study. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to draw out some fresh points. As you will recall, Nehemiah was a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, the Persian King. In spite of his status as a Jewish exile, he earned a position as part of the bodyguard protecting the ruler of one of the world’s two greatest powers at the time.

From the very first moment we meet Nehemiah, we sense a calling. As he serves the king in Persia, the news reaches him that Jerusalem is still lying in ruins after almost a century. It wrecks him. He weeps, he mourns and he prays day and night—for four months. Nehemiah doesn’t just pray with objectivity; he prays himself into the solution: “let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man,” the king (Nehemiah 1:11).

In other words, Nehemiah does something Moses and Gideon would never have dared. While they said, “send somebody else,” Nehemiah says, “send me.” God honours his request, and it starts him on a promotion path. First King Artaxerxes appoints him as foreman of the rebuilding effort. Then, after some early success in Jerusalem, the king promotes him to governor. When my pastor Glen Nudd preached on Nehemiah recently, he summarized it neatly:

At the end of it all, Nehemiah is given a job, a position, an assignment, a mission. He invites it, he receives it, he accepts it, he embraces it.

Can you do that? Is it okay for believers to show such ambition? Aren’t we supposed to resist the temptations of advancement and the lure of power? Isn’t it Christian to be content and to suppress ambition? Doesn’t Nehemiah’s action show complete lack of humility? As Pastor Glen put it:

Sometimes, as believers, we think that to be spiritual and godly we should always refuse advancement, promotion, or any kind of upward mobility and just go play in the shadows quietly, unnoticed and not expecting to influence anything very much. Maybe we think it’s the humble thing to do.

Were Moses and Gideon more godly than this young upstart, Nehemiah? After all, wasn’t Moses described in Numbers 12:3 as the most humble person on earth? Yet a careful reading reveals that Moses and Gideon were paralyzed by fear. I think many believers today have the same problem. While Pastor Glen allowed that there are valid reasons to turn down promotion, he pointed out that sometimes humility is a mask for the real issues for reluctance: fear of responsibility, fear of commitment, or fear of having our faith and abilities tested.

Pastor Glen asked us to consider promotion in a different light:

What if God wants to promote you so that He can use you in an even greater way to be salt and light in a dark world? What if your “no” is actually refusing the potential for great influence and ministry and impact for the Kingdom of God?

Proverbs 29:2 says, ‘When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.’

It’s a good thing, a God-honoring thing, when God’s people are promoted and the salt gets better distributed and the light shines farther. When the gospel and the glory of God are advanced, that’s a good thing.

There’s no Biblical prohibition on ambition for a cause, and that’s why Nehemiah willingly accepts position. The question is how you lead in whatever position God gives you. Jim Collins will tell you that a great leader engaged in a cause should lead with humility. I met a few Proverbs 29 Members of Parliament a couple of weeks ago in Ottawa. I was impressed at their quiet competence, but also their fire when it came to causes like human trafficking. Like Nehemiah, they embraced high positions and the voice it gave them. Through years of faithful witness, each has earned respect for the way they handled the challenges of federal politics.

So, is the act of stepping up in leadership antithetical to humility? Not at all. The answer, as we’ll see in Nehemiah 5, is servant leadership.

If I had a nickel for every time someone referred to me as “our fearless leader,” I’d be a wealthy man. I realize people are trying to honour me, and I accept that, but the label rubs me the wrong way because it suggests that I’m cut from different cloth. It suggests I must be among the fearless ones, when most people have fears, and many are debilitated by fears.

It puts a leader on a pedestal that places leadership safely out of reach for the normal person.

But leading isn’t about being fearless. It’s about overcoming fear. Think about some of these Old Testament characters. We remember that all three boldly approached a foreign king, asking for favour:

  • Esther seems to have tried to dodge the pending annihilation of her people, keeping her heritage hidden beneath the robes of a queen. But then she accepted her cousin’s charge that she was God’s woman on the scene “for such a time as this.” She asked her people in the city to fast for three days while she summoned courage to visit the king and make her request. She concluded, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:12-17). After winning the king’s favour, she still took two days to make her request, easing into it by filling the king’s stomach with feasting. Was it continued nerves or a strategic approach?
  • Ezra’s burden to teach the returning exiles God’s Word led him to approach the king and ask for favour to return to Jerusalem. He had more faith than strategy, because he kicks himself for failing to ask for protection. This became an extra burden when the king was so taken with this scribe’s request that he appointed him governor and overloaded him with donations. God’s hand and love had been so clearly extended to Ezra that he “took courage” (Ezra 7:28), but he admitted a few verses later that he had been “ashamed to ask the king” for protection after boasting in God’s power (Ezra 8:22). Desperate, he proclaimed a fast “and implored our God” to come through for them.
  • Nehemiah prayed four months before slipping up and allowing the king to see the burden he carried. When asked why he was so glum, he was “very much afraid.” He gulped and offered a teaser. When the king took the bait and asked his request, this cupbearer prayed a desperate plea before illogically seeking an appointment as construction foreman for a city wall (Neh 2:1-5).

My point is that we usually remember the outcome, not the struggle. Often the perception is self-inflicted, as leaders reinforce the hero myth. If followers only see the outcome, they put leaders on the pedestal. Leaders need to be clear about the burden we couldn’t shake, the wrestling with God, the dark nights of the soul that led us to make a bold decision.

Worse yet, sometimes leaders convince themselves that they were fearless. Perhaps it’s delusion, believing the headlines. Perhaps it’s forgetfulness. Perhaps it’s poor self awareness. Both Ezra and Nehemiah refer often to “the hand of God” being on them to the point of compulsion. They never claimed credit for their own courage.

Followers can also play a role in overcoming fear. In a later scene after Ezra gets to Jerusalem and exposes a pattern of sin among the clergy, he faces a horrendous decision. The king had given Ezra incredible authority to back up his teaching with strict judgment: death, exile, bankruptcy or prison (7:26). Still, Ezra struggled with the decision until his followers—the ones caught in sin—told him he must follow-through. “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it” (10:4). What an amazing verse of followership! Clearly God’s hand was on Ezra to have followers ready to face their punishment.

So how do you overcome fear? As I was putting this blog together, a friend referred me to the blog of Jeff Iorg, President of Golden Gate Seminary. In July 2012, he wrote three powerful and practical blogs on the subject of overcoming fear. They’re a worthy follow-up to this blog post.

Steve Moore’s list included a good indicator of early leadership that’s worth commenting on: individuals who are willing to take on a challenge others won’t. The ones who show initiative to take advantage of opportunity. The ones whose resistance to risk is overtaken by a compulsion that someone has to do something.

Leaders sometimes appear to come out of nowhere with a sudden success. I suspect I know what Malcomb Gladwell would say: that there are no overnight successes, and the individual has put in a lot of hours beforehand that led to such “instance success.” I agree. I think it’s easier to spot failure than to spot competence, and individuals like these have likely shown signs of potential along the way. What gets them noticed is the turnaround situation where they made something out of nothing.

There’s a well-worn piece of advice that seems relevant: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Remember that line from Amazing Grace, where a 24-year-old William Pitt first proposes to William Wilberforce that he thinks he can make a run at prime minister?

Wilberforce: No one of our age has ever taken power.
Pitt: Which is why we’re too young to realize certain things are impossible. Which is why we will do them anyway.

Some watch that movie and get inspired by Wilberforce; I get inspired by Pitt. Wilberforce succeeded through persistence and endurance; Pitt succeeded by sheer audacity. Perhaps he was a fool, but maybe that’s the point. In Moore’s recent book, While You Were Micro-Sleeping, he makes the point that experts and elitists “can’t ask the dumb questions that often trigger new ideas.” Most innovations come from fools.

Certainly, the pessimism born from experience becomes a block to innovation, but I think there’s another factor at work than just being too young to show caution. I think it’s a matter of conviction and motivation — that sometimes a situation is so dire, with no one willing to take it on, that a young person decides the worst they can do is fail. They have less to lose. Or that a frustrated young leader who never gets opportunity sees in a challenge a chance to go all in. With great risk comes great reward. We can probably all think of young leaders who took on big challenges and came out of nowhere to lead a new era. These are the kinds of stories we love.

But what about the other side? The stories of those who try and fail — or who never try — don’t get told. The younger generations have been long characterized as having an unhealthy fear of failure. Pessimism and skepticism is just as rampant among the young as it is among the old. I’ve had conversations with three young leaders in the past month who have recently faced choices: one relatively safe and one with greater risk. In all three cases, the young leader has opted for safety. There are good reasons for their decisions. No one would question their logic. But I’m disappointed.

Here’s the thing. Organizations need young leaders to step up. Hierarchical organizations need young leaders who master relational influence over positional authority. High-process organizations need young leaders who push back on bureaucracy and ask uncomfortable questions. Monocultural organizations need trailblazers who easily bridge cultures. And older, established organizations need age diversity.

What it comes down to is that the world doesn’t need an older you. The world needs young leaders who are willing to step up and take on the unique challenges we’re facing… today.

Another factor in leaders’ reluctance is that it’s easier to deconstruct than it is to construct. Postmodernity is at its heart a critical theory. As Sarah Arthur and others have said, it’s not really an –ism because it isn’t really a philosophy itself (at least, not yet). So young people today are great at pointing out what’s wrong, but they often don’t know what should take the place of what they’ve critiqued. That, of course, leads to great frustration by established leaders who are taking all the risks. It’s simply easier and more comfortable to sit in the back row and shoot at the leaders. So the challenge is to find ways to get young people to enter the dialog. It’s not that they don’t have ideas or suggestions; usually it’s quite the opposite, and they don’t think anyone in authority is willing to listen.

A thirty-something friend of mine, who had developed an unfortunate reputation as a back-row complainer, has recently felt called by God to step up to the front and lead. It’s a different role, and it comes with risks. In taking on a new position of responsibility, this friend is adjusting to a different role, with new influence but different options available to her to voice frustrations and ideas. As she told me the other day, “If nothing else, I have no problem being a front-row criticizer who’s in on the planning as well.”

Leadership has its privileges and responsibilities. You simply can’t do the same things as the back row critics. But it’s contagious. As a mentor told me early on in my career, “Once you’re in the game, it’s hard to leave it.” If you want to change the world, there’s no better alternative to earning a voice of influence that gives you the means to do something about an issue rather than just complain about it. I’m not talking about a desire for power, but a tipping point where the desire to be heard overcomes your fears of responsibility.

My suggestions? As an established leader, find a way to give voice to the rising, reluctant and potential leaders. You need to hear their critiques and ideas. And they need you to hear them. And challenge them to step up. I watched a situation where one of my direct reports had a great idea to completely revamp the way we do our short term trips. I admire my boss’s response when he heard the idea: he asked the young leader if he believed in the idea enough to make it happen. It was a challenge to step up and show his stuff.

Another major reason for reluctance is the hero myth. In their article Encouraging Reluctant Leaders, Reidy Associates describes this myth as:

the view that leadership is carried out by a person, “the Leader”, who possesses a particular skill set. Included among the skills thought of as constituting leadership are charisma, courage, decisiveness, ability to delegate, time management, and so on. It is not surprising that people often hold this view. Many cultural myths and messages promote a view of leadership based on the hero, the knight in shining armor. The leader/hero has courage, skill conviction, clarity and he (almost always he) holds the responsibility for rescuing the rest of us from whatever threat we face.

This view, of course, is reinforced by superstar pastors or superstar CEOs who seem to have no weaknesses. Of course they do! We just don’t see them, or they never admit them. I worry about people like that, because they seem to fall harder.

Leadership development is a tricky subject, because it always seems to boil down to a bullet list of characteristics needed in leadership. No one person can ever attain such a lofty list of traits. And therefore young people loaded with potential don’t try. How do we create an atmosphere that breaks down this paralyzing myth?

Here are a few thoughts. One, established leaders have to be vulnerable. Pull back the curtain and let us see your weaknesses, your fears and your failures. Admit when you are or were wrong. Unveil your coping mechanisms. Reluctant leaders might learn a few things from your brutal honesty and might love and respect you even more.

Two, let’s publicize the fact that no one person has all the qualifications for any one job. And no one type of leader is perfect for any one job. Different combinations of giftings can match a position perfectly. Or, to put it another way, different combinations of weaknesses can match a position perfectly.

Three, let’s remind ourselves that leaders are simply the right person for the right setting. Winston Churchill was a masterful leader of war but a poor leader of peace. You could say the same about Ulysses S. Grant on our side of the pond.

Reidy goes on:

We think, “I can’t be a leader because I’m deathly afraid of public speaking.” Or, “How can I exercise leadership when I don’t have the: (pick one) college degree, title, solution to the problem, right image?”

Let me suggest a different approach, taken by my sister-in-law, who keynoted a seminar in Atlanta this weekend. Here’s the bio she used:

Emily Bruso is a 28-year-old wife and mother of two young boys. She has a modest education, a messy house, and an imperfect life. She has no awards to her name, but she loves Jesus, loves the Word of God, has experienced the healing that comes from a Godly forgiveness, and wants you to experience it too!