A New Way to Play Follow the Leader

Walt Disney’s unique definition of leadership:

The ability to establish and manage a creative climate in which individuals and teams are self-motivated to the successful achievement of long-term goals in an environment of mutual respect and trust.

Today’s post continues excerpts from Innovate the Pixar Way by Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson. The authors contend that Pixar has reawakened the innovative spirit of Walt Disney and set new standards for commercial and critical achievement. The book explores how Pixar has built an organization on the simple philosophy that quality is the best business plan. With a track record of 13 for 13 smash feature animation films, it’s hard to argue!

Walt Disney didn’t ascribe to the childhood playbook for “follow the leader” – instead, he created an environment of self-motivated creative thinkers who worked together to deliver a magical, magnetic, enchanting experience for his audience.

Pixar understands leadership the same way.


  • Establishment of a Clear Vision – Pixar has a clear vision and communicates that vision to its team. The best leaders are excellent communicators, engaging their teams by providing them with the tools and information needed for success – and then trusting them to do their jobs.
  • Creative Climate – Creative climates need leadership and a management style that helps them to develop and grow and allows them to have fun in the process. Pixar is in the people development business, going to great lengths to nourish and support its team members. They invest in people, creating a culture of learning, filled with lifelong learners.
  • Individuals and Teams – Pixar thrives on teamwork, but each person on the team is given creative ownership of even the smallest task. This level of autonomy and accountability is practically unheard of in the movie business, where a top-down fear-driven culture is the norm.
  • Self-Motivated Personnel – great leaders know that self-motivated people are essential to developing a creative culture. Pixar is continually on the lookout for new talent that can blossom with their unique culture. The team at Pixar is 100 percent self-motivated to being as creative as they can be and to making movies the best they can. Period.
  • Long-Term Goals – It’s always been about creating for the long-term at Pixar. Their definition of “long-term” speaks volumes about its culture. They go to great lengths to ensure that its culture can support new ventures and still remains true to their values.
  • Mutual Respect and Trust – Pixar team members have embarked on a journey together, nurturing one another in an environment of mutual respect and trust. When leaders exhibit a high level of respect and trust, earned over time, that’s exactly what they will get in return.

There’s no “follow the leader” game at Pixar. Their playbook simply calls for an open playground where leadership serves as a catalyst in the pursuit of big dreams.

If you were to hold up the “magic mirror on the wall” to your leadership style, what would you see?


Think Like a Director

Pixar is obsessed with only one quality measurement for every film:

It begins and ends around the story.

Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson, writing in Innovate the Pixar Way, want leaders to think of their team or organization as if they were the director of a Broadway play. It’s time to sit in the director’s chair and visualize the major pieces of the production and direction of the play – the story, setting, roles, and backstage processes.

Begin with the Story

What’s your dream? What story are you trying to tell? It doesn’t matter if you are creating the next Pixar animated feature film, designing a new appliance, opening a new store, or planning a new ministry to reach people – you have to bring your vision, your story, your dream to life in an exciting and exhilarating way. Craft your story in a way that will ignite the creative energies of your team and mage magical, dream-come-true moments for your “customers.”

Instead of “meeting customer expectations,” start fulfilling their dreams. Craft the experience in terms of:

  • 3-dimensional Technicolor images
  • Dreams fulfilled
  • Magical moments
  • Doing the impossible
  • Story, plot, theme
  • Unique, memorable, and engaging
  • Passionate belief in values

Build the Set

If you were a director, you would have a set designer whose job it is to make sure the visual journey of the audience complements the overall story. Like Walt Disney, Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter is fanatical about details:

Every detail has to be thought out, designed, modeled, shaded, placed, and lit…It takes four years to make one of these films and there are no excuses after the movie’s done – it’s going to be that way forever.

The “virtual set” in your organization is immense and includes everything from the parking lot, buildings, and program to the website, graphic displays, and language used. The setting is part of the creative experience – don’t overlook or shortchange it.

Recruit the Cast

As the director of a play or movie you would search the acting community to identify and cast the perfect actor for each role, selecting someone who will make the role come to life, someone who is dynamic, exciting, exuberant, interesting, and believable. Why is it that in the organizational world we tend to look for the candidates who have the best pedigrees, not for the ones who are interesting or diverse or have ideas that might be considered eccentric?

Colorful, unique, memorable, magical moments will seldom be created by boring, myopic, unimaginable people.

Design the Backstage Processes

Imagine it is opening night of your Broadway play. You have an engaging, heartfelt, emotional story. You have an award-winning set designer and have assembled an ensemble of some of the best actors in the industry. You have rehearsed and rehearsed. Fantastic reviews will be forthcoming – or will they?

What if duplicate tickets were sold, the curtain gets stuck halfway up, and the main stage lighting goes out during Act 3? What could have been a colossal hit might struggle to stay open.

Getting your “backstage” support and “onstage” show to all work and play well together can be just as important to the success of your organization as unleashing the creative energies within each department.

Remove the barriers between “backstage” processes and the “onstage” show, and watch the magic happen.

Is it time to stop cutting and pasting your old and frankly boring service and think like a director?

Tomorrow: A New Way to Play “Follow the Leader”

Where Did the Creativity Go?

Consider the talents of the following two groups who were asked these three questions:

  • How many of you are good singers?
  • How many of you are good dancers?
  • How many of you are good artists?

About 2 percent of the first group responded positively to each of these three questions. That’s a typical response of most business teams. But it’s possible to find a second group in almost any community who would give nearly 100 percent positive responses. Surprised?

Ask any group of first graders these three questions, and the children will respond with an enthusiastic “Yes!” to each one.

All children are creative – they’re born that way!

What happened to the creative gene that was so alive in our childhoods?

Authors and consultants Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson have answered that question in their book Innovate the Pixar Way. Subtitled “Business lessons from the world’s most creative corporate playground,” the book details how Pixar provides a working environment that encourages imagination, inventiveness, and joyful collaboration.

The book asks, and then answers, these questions:

  • How do you build an organization that embraces change and delivers an innovative, high-quality service or product?
  • How do you establish a culture of creativity in which the talents and abilities of all are nurtured and honed with great care?
  • How do you unleash the creative genius within your team and still meet budgets and deadlines?
  • How do you establish an environment that awakens dreams?

Going behind the screen at Pixar, Capodagli and Jackson answer these questions and more. Here’s a sample:

Pixar goes to great lengths to hire people who are interested in working together as a network in solving problems, building and supporting each other. Four common proficiencies are vital to making art a team sport.

  • Depth – demonstrating mastery in a subject or a principal skill such as drawing or programming; having the discipline to chase dreams all the way to the finish line
  • Breadth – possessing a vast array of experiences and interests; having the ability to explore insights from many different perspectives; being able to effectively generate new ideas by collaborating with an entire team
  • Communication – focusing on the receiver; receiving feedback to ascertain whether the message sent was truly understood; only the listener can say, “I understand”
  • Collaboration – bringing together the skills, ideas, and personality styles of an entire team to achieve a shared vision; fostering collective creativity and keeping the vibe and energy in the room upbeat and alive

Wouldn’t you want to work on a team in an environment like that?

Maybe the better question is, ¬†Wouldn’t you want to lead your team in an environment like that?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Director

Other Posts You Might Be Interested In:

The Creative Process at Pixar

The Secret of Disney World

My Top Ten Takeaways From Disney World

The Disney Job Description