Candour with Kindness – what leaders can learn from Pixar



Candour with Kindness – what leaders can learn from Pixar

 ‘I’m often surprised to find problems that have existed right in front of me, in plain sight’. ‘I’ve been searching all my life for better ways of seeing’.

 Ed Catmull. Creativity Inc. 2015

 This has to be one of my favourite quotes from Ed Catmull’s book Creativity Inc.

Having read it twice now I know that there is much leaders can learn from it, and from Pixar’s tremendous journey.  In his book Ed Catmull describes 40 years of searching for better ways of seeing. That alone makes him a great leader, but that is not all.

Ed Catmull has made his central focus being to see what is not easily seen within his business.  It is this that is of substance.  Pixar leads the way because it doesn’t rest and hide behind a health and wellbeing policy that sits in a filing cabinet.  They live and breathe, and attend to what is hidden even when everything in their human nature is stacked against them to do so. Ed describes this dichotomy beautifully when discussing the difference between ours beliefs about honesty and candour.  ‘Honesty being the best policy’ brings fear, is without thought and perhaps not always with good intention.  Candour with good intention is to have honesty which is fruitful, and which will support brilliant minds get the best out of each other.

I work similarly with very smart people who are on the verge of breaking down, if they haven’t already.  By encouraging incredible minds to think and feel, with a companionable relationship with themselves their own inner truths can’t hurt them unless they hold how they feel against themselves.   Encouraging incredibly smart people to see within themselves what is not easily seen, what one may rather ignore, is to bring awareness to ones leadership, and on purpose create a relationship with mental healthiness.

The opportunity in embracing ourselves as feeling people first, and ‘out putters’ second.  Ignorance of oneself will at the very least stunt your experience, and at worst create your demise.

That is why I am inspired by companies who are embracing ‘what it is to be human’, and creating environments where the full human experience is not only nodded towards but is central to the working cogs of the corporation.  It not only facilitates creativity it is an essential.

When open to our whole selves creativity is not just possible it’s unstoppable and the exact opposite is also true.  An environment of secrecy, fear, and ‘cutting off’ to the human experience creates blockages in ones abilities and creativity, and innovation.  Why? because we use energy trying to survive a hostile environment, and everything we tuck away is what ends up being in control, but unfortnatelt not in a good and healthy way.

Self aware managers and companies like Ed and Pixar are embracing the opportunity to  increase humanity and humility in the workplace.   Committing to understanding yourself and being transparent to yourself, your needs and your desires that drive you can engender and encourage a company culture which is creative, courageous, kind and above all humane.

It takes courage to be open to what you can’t see.

Kind, creative, courageous environments require intention and attention in equal measure.

Ed Catmull endeavours to maintain an ethos of candour and transparency as much as possible and weaving within its culture an pervasive humility.  Of course it has not always been easy for them, and there have been terrifically inhumane schedules during their history, but the tenacity and kindness led by Ed Catmull remains it’s pivot.  Hard lessons have been learned and changes made.  Excellence comes in quality for Pixar, simply that.


I would learn much about what managers should and shouldn’t do, about vision and delusion, about confidence and arrogance, about what encourages creativity and what snuffs it out I was asking questions that intrigued me even as they confuse me. Even now 40 years later I’ve never stopped questioning.

Ideas come from people so people have to come first, look after the people and you look after your ideas, your stories, your teams, your films your culture

Hiring people that were smarter than him, gave obvious payoffs. It clearly expanded his mind his experience his ability to innovate and excel was never taken for granted. Ed Catmull was able to extend himself beyond his own limits by surrounding himself with exceptional talent. Of course it’s clear from the book that Ed More himself is a phenomenal talent and gentle man. It seems to me that his gentle, and kindly approach to what could easily be cutthroat creativity has allowed an organisation to grow whilst paying attention to the myriad of things that could easily go wrong and weaken.

W Edwards Deming was an American who working in Japan revolutionised car manufacturing ‘ the responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line. If anyone at any level spotted a problem in the manufacturing process, Deming believed, they should be encourage and expected to stop the assembly line’

‘No one is lesser, everyone matters’

To buy Ed Catmull’s book:

Creativity,  Courage & Transparency

This became inspirational to Ed Catmull as he had the insight to realise that to encourage a culture of transparency and sharing in an atmosphere without hierarchy gave the business of Pixar its best chance to not only survive but to thrive. My interest in this is to find an organisation of pure excellence creativity and innovation where a person is able to extend themselves in their intellect and creativity and talent without getting sick.

Ed Catmull talks about being a self aware leader, and it is my belief that you must be on a parallel journey with any employee that you take on. Whilst you expect them to consistently challenge themselves a leader is consistently challenging and developing themselves.  If a leader is not prepared to have the transparency within the relationship they have with themselves there leadership will be thwarted, and fraudulent. The organisational transparency that Ed talks about, must be equally at the heart of the leaders life. My version of this is for leaders to have a companionable and transparent relationship with themselves, so that they do not waste time looking for perfection but what they do is endeavour to be creative within their work, so that they can extend themselves beyond what they thought possible without it making them sick.

‘The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff. I realised that this was something I needed to look out for: when downsides coexist with upsides as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labelled complainers. I also realised that this kind of thing, if left unaddressed, could fester and destroy Pixar.

For me, this discovery was bracing. Being on the lookout for problems, I realise was not the same thing as seeing problems.’

How do we convey to employees that they are safe to share how they feel, when they feel weakened, or they feel they shouldn’t feel stress.

We’re all human, we all need to be able to be fully human

We all have value, and we all have valuable ideas to share

The power of conversations

I’ve often over the years found myself talking to people about simply having a conversation about something that is troubling them. It’s hard to believe how riddled with fear this can make people. It’s just a conversation you don’t even have to make a decision based on the conversation, it’s simply sharing how you feel. Of course people who work in highly responsible positions feel that they must not share feelings. Feelings are to be feared and are often considered weak. This is the basis of many corporate sicknesses. To disallow feelings is to disallow the human experience, and as soon as a corporation supports this they encourage this incremental and slow demise of their best minds. To me, apart from the fact that it is immoral, it makes no business sense whatsoever.

So you can have an organisation with humility and kindness at its core.

The importance of the size and shape of a table.  A long thin table suggested that those at the ends of the table were less important of less value to the organisation.  30 people around it with only a core in the middle who would feel accepted.  ‘West one’  place cards engendered by the table shape and size,

Where are they?  Are they in the fabric of the work place or are they in the filing cabinet?

Humanity and humility in every scene of their movies otherwise they lose people.  Value of the employee

No contract no policy, instead an utter conviction as to how to truly believe and act out what’s within.  Ed Catmull must be at ease with himself in order to be able create and continue to create and innovate.  He is relentlessly interested in what he cannot see, and spends time in an atmosphere of curiosity and discovery.   Ed Catmull’s ability to live with holding simultaneously all what is known and all what is not known is I believe a huge part of Pixar’s tremendous success.

We can learn to lead with humanity at the heart of the institution.

To buy Ed Catmull’s book:



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