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).

I’ve been making my way slowly through the Bible and am currently slogging through Numbers. But you can’t go to sleep on even the difficult books, because you’ll suddenly find a gold mine where you least expect it. Numbers 11 is so packed, I’ve been stuck on it for almost three weeks.

We all know that Moses was a great leader, and his life is chock full of leadership examples. But as with most leaders, a lot of the examples we can learn from come from mistakes and weaknesses. Moses’ life has been laid bare for us, and there are a number of lessons here in this chapter.

Don’t join the whining

We open with verse 4. The first three verses are a preamble full of foreshadowing. The people complain, God’s anger is kindled, and people die. Yet they don’t learn their lesson. They begin to complain again.

Verse 4 says the people “yielded to intense craving” (NKJV) and began to complain. This “lusting” (ESV) originated with the “rabble” living among them – the foreigners who came along with them from Egypt. They’re tired of their daily manna and want meat. Their discontent quickly spreads from the fringes to consume the camp, even tainting Moses.

It seems to be a universal tendency of children to manipulate with tears. Have you ever noticed how children project their crying? When you hear them projecting, rather than sobbing to themselves, you know they’re trying to manipulate. The text here says the people of Israel wept at the doors of their tents. They are not embarrassed; instead, they’re projecting.

And have you ever noticed that non-tonal languages get tonal when it comes to whining? You don’t even need to hear the words. As it does with many parents, the manipulative chorus pushes Moses over the edge.

Moses and God are united in their disgust at what they hear. While the former is aggravated, the latter is described as irate. But then Moses turns and unloads on God. And boy does he whine! He complains about the load he has to carry, about why the responsibility fell on him in the first place, about why God is treating him so badly. Then he takes it over the top: “If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!” (Nu 11:15)

How will an irate God react? Surprisingly, God’s anger disappears. He doesn’t lash out at Moses, his friend. Something about the way Moses says it communicates his vulnerability in that moment, and God provides solutions instead of rebuke. First, he provides a long-term answer. Then he takes responsibility to meet the short-term, tangible need.

Address the systemic problem first

Moses is on a journey in his understanding of leadership. Governing a nation is no small task. You’ll recall the hierarchical judicial system Moses installed on the counsel of his father-in-law (Exodus 18). Now God helps him assemble a distributed executive branch. Instead of trying to run everything himself, his focus should be on seventy elders who can assist in governing the people.

Note that this new system is not really designed to solve the immediate crisis. After all, finding meat is not a problem that is better solved by a committee of seventy instead of one. God chooses first to address the more long-term, systemic issue behind Moses’ rant: the fact that he can’t bear this people alone. It won’t be a quick fix. The “soft skills” of mediation and morale-lifting are among the more difficult tasks of leadership, so Moses will need to invest a lot in these seventy before they can adequately and consistently deal with the hearts of the people. But God opens the door to systemic, foundational improvement.

In my experience, it’s difficult to think about a long-term systemic solution when you’re in a crisis. Leaders who are overwhelmed just want to put the fire out. To put it in Stephen Covey’s terminology (The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People), if you dwell in the quadrant of putting out fires, you’ll spend all your time putting out fires. God is interested in moving Moses’ time and energy into quadrant 2, where he can look at more important issues. God makes this shift before he addresses the immediate need.

Do you see the intimacy in the relationship between Moses and God? Moses can be himself, and he can pour out his frustration on God without fear of reprisal. And God in turn acts to sustain Moses by addressing the core issue before answering Moses’ request. Moses’ success was not about leadership technique that can be turned into formula. His success depended entirely on his relationship with God. That’s the central lesson in my study of Moses.

Next post I’ll turn to the lessons Moses learned about leading through the Spirit.

Last Sunday, I had an epiphany as we read the story about Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8. That’s the story of a desperate father who asks Jesus to heal his daughter. As Jesus heads to his home, he gets interrupted by a woman who touches the edge of his robe. The father’s worst fears are realized: he receives news after this delay that his daughter died. Jesus isn’t dissuaded; he says she’s only sleeping and raises her from the dead.

That’s when the obvious occurred to me: all the stories we read about Jesus can’t possibly include everyone who died in his three years of ministry.

Of course, we know from John 21:25 that the gospels are a synopsis of Jesus’ life; we don’t have everything written down. But, given the much shorter life expectancy of Jesus’ day, in three years there had to be a lot of funerals. We know that Jesus was selective about those he healed. John 5 is a remarkable passage where Jesus tiptoes through a crowd of sick people — excuse me… pardon me… sorry about that — to heal one person and then — sorry… excuse me… didn’t mean to — tiptoes back out. I can only conclude that Jesus also chose not to bring some back to life.

It gets worse that that. We know Jesus went to weddings. The only one that got recorded involved a miracle, but Jesus likely went to many weddings. He no doubt went to funerals as well. Can you imagine Jesus sitting in a funeral? All eyes had to be on him. The expectations were palpable. But he only chose three to raise from the dead.

A couple of leadership principles come to mind. First, know your mission and don’t get distracted by the huge need. This is certainly true for nonprofits. Jesus could have easily been overwhelmed by those who needed healing. Several times, he rejected miracles as a means of drawing a crowd for his message. Neither healings, raisings nor crowds were his main point as he set out with determination to launch a kingdom.

Going a little further, Jesus didn’t let others define his mission. He certainly left some people very disappointed and disillusioned.

I also recall a leadership principle I heard from Andy Stanley: Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. Rather than get paralyzed by the need and decide out of fairness to not do anything for anyone, it’s better to choose a couple of opportunities to get involved. I read recently on CNN how Steve Jobs periodically sat at the help desk and answered phone calls and emails. In a few cases he intervened. In many others, his replies were very terse. But he made an impact on those he engaged with.

If the God-man had to place limits on his scope and ministry, how much more should we? It’s refreshing to me to realize that Jesus could attend a funeral and grieve with the family without having to intervene and try to solve the problem.

My sculpture class at Georgia State introduced me to some of the more creative artists at the school. One lady in particular was a practitioner of performance art. One day she piled sand on the floor “just so” in preparation for her presentation, only to find at show time a forklift sitting atop her sculpture. After a stern lecture on art appreciation, the offending construction worker removed his equipment, and the performance went on, complete with wooden railroad ties and votive candles. Part of her performance was the credit given to her generous sources, who seldom knew of their contributions to the art world: unwitting restaurants and construction sites were generous benefactors. Another time she incorporated a beautifully-carved fireplace facade. It’s amazing the art you can create when you steal beauty from other people.

While I have major issues with the particular way she applied the use of “found objects,” over time I’ve become a practitioner myself. There’s some real value in one artist building on another’s ideas. I’m not talking about plagiarizing or stealing your competitors’ ideas; in fact, the best companies and the most creative sorts ignore their competitors completely. Instead, I suggest stealing from other arenas. Let me explain the principle and follow with a well-known example.

An old mentor in my early days as a graphic designer told me not to read design magazines. Instead, read books or magazines about my interests. You will copy what you expose yourself to, and if all you see is other designers’ work, you’ll end up doing cheap imitations. His inspiration was manhole covers. He found ways to use the old European ironwork to inspire his work in paper, paint and wood. So, whatever your industry, don’t read the trade publications. Instead, expose yourself to the broader world around you.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Ramo tells the story of Shigeru Miyamoto, who borrowed a chip from an automobile airbag to create the Wii. He “‘mashed up’ two seemingly unrelated things — an accelerometer and a video game — to create something new.” The Wii singlehandedly transformed the gaming industry, not just in a technological way but by changing the mindset of gaming. No longer was the world divided cleanly into gamers — overwhelmingly male, couch-potato types — and nongamers. Now some of the fastest-growing markets were female and elderly. Wii Fit ridiculously turned all of the stereotypes on their heads.

Mashups capture a sense of creativity that passes established borders, that combines a sort of deep, curious yearning… with a hands-on, practical tinkerer’s spirit. But when these two are wedded, innovation becomes inevitable.

Mashups can be game changers, but it takes a visionary to find the usefulness of one industry to transform another. Leaders don’t imitate. Whatever problem you’re facing, perhaps you need to lift your eyes. Look outside your industry to see how you might apply someone else’s solution to your own problem.

What are the implications of the fact that God sent Jesus into the world to redeem us? First, it speaks to our worth. The God who created us in his image felt that we were worth redeeming. He died for our sins, instead of us, to reconcile us to God and to each other. None of us will ever understand that sacrifice by a holy God. So, we are valuable. Remember that as we consider this next part.

Second, according to James Plueddemann, because we are all broken and sinful, “all the problems in the world are directly or indirectly caused by sin.” Poverty, war, greed, injustice, illness and tragedies of every kind stem from a broken creation spoiled by sin. Therefore, government or business solutions are like applying a topical cream to treat cancer.

Jesus is the only solution to the sin problem… so the most competent leader in the world cannot solve any major problem without the gospel of Jesus.

The gospel alone — God rescuing us from our brokenness — is the answer for the deepest needs of humans and creation as a whole.

Third, Plueddemann adds, “the goal of leadership is to point people to Jesus.” Rather than work independently, we realize we are branches on a vine, and we can do nothing without him (John 15). Rather than draw attention to ourselves, we realize we are nothing without him. Our goal is to co-lead with him, if you will, pointing to him as the solution and primary source of any gifts and ability we have or success we enjoy.

Fourth, leaders have a model for their own leadership style. Jesus is the ideal leader who modeled servant leadership, an “astounding and universally countercultural” concept. Mark 10:45 lays out the standard for our leadership practice:

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.

So, a failure to understand what Jesus did for us leads to the misunderstanding that we are something on our own and down the ugly road of pride. This sure isn’t a feel-good post. I feel really small. Thank God that the gospel doesn’t end with how bad we are. It’s worth reading the first paragraph again.

I’m a problem solver. I love to fix people’s problems, and over the last decade, I’ve honed a reputation for creative problem solving. But I discovered that when I’m the only one to solve problems and put out fires, I become a firefighter. It’s all I have time to do. Every problem routes through me… and usually adds another dozen emails to my inbox. The sad part about firefighting is that it’s not leadership. It consumes all your time so you can’t focus on the things that only you can do. As Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller say in The Secret, leaders can’t work on “Heads Up” activities like vision and strategy if they’re spending all their time on “Heads Down” activities like putting out fires.

So I’ve learned to turn it around. If my staff present a problem to me, the best way to respond is with a question: “what do you think we should do?” Put the onus on them, and draw them into the solution process. There’s a good chance they have some ideas. If they don’t, they will next time they bring a problem to me. I now keep a sign on my desk that says, “Equip problem solvers.” I’d rather do that than be the Chief Problem Solver.

Michelle Braden, president of MSBCoach, did a webinar in January where she listed another list of qualities to identify and develop in future leaders. I just rediscovered my notes from that presentation, and I think her submissions are good additions to our list of seeds:

  • Interpersonal skills – Do they show self-awareness, show good emotional intelligence and use their strengths?
  • Ability to deal with complex problems – and do they show flexibility in how they deal with them?
  • Ability to develop and inspire others – Are they others-focused? Do they value collaboration?
  • Hunger to learn – Are they curious, questioning and aspiring for more? Are they open to people speaking into their life?
  • Visionary – Do they show an interest in the big picture, demonstrate early-stage strategic thinking?
  • Introspective – Do they think before they act? Do they talk about the importance of an integrated life? Are they results-oriented… for the right reasons? What are their motivations?
  • Courage – Do they have the bility to take a stand? Are they willing to take a risk and stand by it?
  • Ability to recover – Can they take the heat and handle pushback? Do they understand the process to recover from failure?
  • Influence – Do they lead out of relationship, without needing a title?

Mmmm. Good stuff here. Again, I’ll save my comments for later posts, but let me add one more from personal observation:

  • A new interest in taking themselves seriously

How about you? What early seeds of leadership have you observed? We’re getting a pretty comprehensive list here.