Very Different Organizations – Similar Solutions

For those interested in practical examples of highly successful leaders in very different circumstances, two recent books are worth a look – Canadian Chris Hadfield’s on his space career and experiences: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth and Ed Catmull’s lessons from his CEO role (under owner Steve Jobs, there’s a challenge) at Pixar in: Creativity, Inc.

Two more different environments and individuals can hardly be imagined – the ‘no mistakes ever’ world of NASA versus the ‘open everything to free innovation by trial and error’ world of Pixar. Together they frame the ultimate puzzle – not just how much freedom you ought to give employees, but what kinds.

Too tight control they may not innovate, too little and they’re lost. The formulaOuter Space for what works best is clearly quite different between the two, yet one can pick out similarities and problems that are common to both, just in different guises. Uncertainty is a key factor that both faced and excelled in.

Hadfield’s book is notable for its unusual emphasis on the value of negative thinking… in a positive way. By thinking about everything that can go wrong – or, as he often puts it literally, “the next thing that can kill me” – he presses on to prepare for every imaginable challenge – hoping that when the unimaginable happens and is less than instantly fatal, he will be able to find a solution. Whatever happens then he is positively surprised – it isn’t the worst. Preparation for the unexpected to avoid it, minimize it or cope with it is number one.

Catmull’s career in some ways is no less hair-raising. Sticking with his dream to do animated films by computer meant tottering to the edge of bankruptcy many times over. He’s thankful Steve Jobs stepped in to risk his entire personal fortune from the early MAC days to fund the dream and ends up writing a rather odd chapter explaining how Jobs really turned into a nice guy, though still a guy with a total emphasis on top quality and a tolerance only for those who could immediately deliver that and stand up for their beliefs in the face of what you’d have to say were nothing short of attacks. This makes Catmull’s book the greater study in contradictions, but you also have to say his orientation to the unexpected is to look for it, in fact dig for it, encourage it and depend on it to help everyone exceed expectations. Either way these guys are fully in tune with uncertainty and its up or downsides.

In leadership style, Catmull himself is as totally committed to continual learning by the leader (oneself) as Hadfield, but for the purpose of creating a fear-free environment for employees so they can critique him and each other in total honesty or, as he carefully argues, with absolute candor – an interesting difference that he makes a good case for. There’s the parallel with Hadfield – a totally positive attitude and environment so everyone can be as negative as possible about what’s wrong (so it will stimulate the creativity to fix it).

What I loved most about both books (though I thought each could be tightened up) is the absolute willingness to starkly paint the major contradictions leaders have to stare down in order to achieve greatest success. There is no either/or in these leaders, but a resounding, all-out both/and. You can’t face the myriad other contradictions of managing well without first coming to terms with maximum positive and maximum negative. How do you remain so positive when bad things happen, mistakes are made and you know you need to think about negatives constantly to develop the creativity to overcome them? Talk about Polarity Management to name another great book that always comes to mind on this topic, a book still relevant and updated today.

Depending on what type of business you’re in, one or the other of these books might seem more worthwhile, but from an organizational point of view Creativity Inc. is the one that hammers home the need to eliminate fear, for bosses to get out of the way of employees and constantly encourage them to speak out freely, to address the many barriers to such freedom which we all sort of know, but often fail to see.

Catmull has spent a long time thinking about how to become a great leader and ends the book with a long list of pithy observations distilled from his earlier anecdotes. Internalizing the gist of those observations through continuous reflection and learning is what he believes made him better. Is Catmull therefore that great a leader? Some say yes for sure (in a story that’s in the book as well as on this HBR blog). Coming from professor Bob Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss, this says a lot. Was Steve Jobs a great boss? Catmull’s arguments are summarized in this post. Oddly Jobs might have done something similar in the same situation as Catmull and Sutton describe, but ultimately there’s little doubt which one we’d prefer to work for.

Catmull outlines how he coached improvement and brought a lot of people along, whereas Jobs is notorious for simply winnowing the great mass down to the handful of individuals who could live up to his standards and then live with them (and him). No question we all believe in getting the right people on the bus, but Catmull does a far better job of describing the fact that sometimes you don’t know who the right people will turn out to be, how you can find out and help them become those winners – a skill far more valuable in the long run for those of us who can’t find, pay for and retain the occasional A-player who isn’t a total prima donna or whom you may just never run into. Factoring in uncertainty and unpredictability clearly helped Catmull succeed.

Whatever else can be said, both these leaders had super high goals for themselves first, then for organizations and others and led the way by modeling consistent behaviors, coping positively with all the uncertainties and seizing every opportunity because they kept their eyes on the big goals. Both found teams necessary to further their aims and both found ways to contribute and support those teams rather than attempting to simply give orders.

Both were driven less by money than by inspiring objectives. They worked and were helped by people with similar inspirations that both leaders actively kept in the forefront for their teams. As is still typical of almost all top leaders they recognized the value of team-family, but only secondarily. It’s probably fair to say they both recognized the primacy of those work-life balance issues (Catmull talks very specifically about ensuring his teams kept some balance), but tended to ignore these in their own lives more than they later thought they should have. It seemed to be the one area they didn’t quite walk the talk, but who among us is perfect?