“Telling the truth is hard, but in a creative company it’s the only way to ensure excellence.”
- Ed Catmull, Pixar
Candor is when we give and receive feedback respectfully and with a disposition of teachability. This character trait seems to be something of a lost art in the world today. The desire to be “nice” in order to not offend has actually impeded our ability to help others and, in my opinion, lead. Candor is not, nor should it become, harsh, mean, negative, or self-serving. Quite the contrary, candor should be motivated by a desire to help our fellow sojourners and lead those around us to excel. Candor is essential in any leader’s tool kit.
Here’s an athletic example of candor at work. In the 2004 Summer Olympics, the British Men’s Coxless Four won gold in the nail-biting photo-finish rowing competition. They had spent four years training for a race that lasted only six minutes, and Great Britain beat Canada by a time of only eight-hundredths of a second. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the British rower Matthew Pinsent wept at the medal ceremony.
The team was coached for this event by Jürgen Gröbler, who had worked with gold medal-winning teams for an eye-watering eleven consecutive Olympic Games. One of the keys to the team’s success was a simple question: “How will we make the boat go faster?” This question provided a powerful focal point for giving feedback and making tough decisions. Team members committed to one another: “We must say and do what it takes to make the boat go faster.” It’s an unrelenting focus on improvement. By fixating on how to reach that target, the crew members had a context in which they continued to provide world-beating performances day after day, even when the big day was still years away.
That winning time of only eight-hundredths of a second meant gold. When reflecting on their success, team members said that a significant factor was their commitment to one another – they’d promised each other that they would call out and say what was needed to make their boat go faster, no matter how uncomfortable it was. The British Men’s Coxless Four was united by focusing on a single shared goal.
Another example of candor comes from the media giant Pixar. With 23 Academy Awards and an average worldwide gross of over $680 million per film, Pixar might just be the most successful creative enterprise ever—and one of the most profitable. Moreover, 15 of Pixar’s films are among the 50 highest-grossing animated films of all time.
What began in 1995 with the release of Toy Story continues today with movies like Inside Out, Soul, and Turning Red. Pixar’s animated films tell captivating stories that somehow make kids and adults alike laugh, cry, and cheer.
It’s hard to argue with the successes that Pixar can claim over the past 28 years. They revolutionized their industry’s approach to animation and continue to break new ground with the characters and themes in their movies—resulting in 100% of their releases producing box office success.
In his 2014 book, Creativity Inc., Pixar President Ed Catmull pulls back the curtain on his remarkable organization to give us some clues about how they keep it coming. He proudly acknowledges that while they have consistently made movie magic since they released Toy Story in 1995, it’s hard going every time.
Catmull’s view is that missteps and mistakes are to be expected in any creative endeavor, and finding them fast makes all the difference to learning and recovery. Part of his job, he believes, is to create an environment for candid feedback that helps filmmakers identify and solve the inevitable issues that could compromise the Pixar storytelling quality that the world takes for granted.
In Catmull’s words: “Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are...Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”
People tend to think that great works are born out of sublime inspiration. There may be some truth to that, but it’s only a small part of the story. Catmull calls Pixar’s initial ideas “ugly babies” because they start out “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” Not everyone can see what those ugly babies can grow into.
The problem is that there is always a tendency to compare an early idea to a finished project. Moreover, we tend to compare early ideas to the best of the genre. It’s crucial to see a new idea’s potential as well as its shortcomings. That’s very hard to do.
Everybody’s seen runaway hits like Toy Story and Finding Nemo, yet very few knew them when they were awkward, ugly babies. That makes it tempting to want to kill new ideas in the cradle, but it’s essential to protect them. Every great work was an ugly baby at some point.
“Originality is fragile,” Catmull writes. “The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new.”
Catmull describes how Pixar has created a culture that makes it safe for people to speak their minds—even when they need to tell a harsh truth that no one wants to hear. Imagine telling a brilliant director that some aspect of his beloved movie—the one he has been living and breathing 24 hours a day for months or years—just doesn’t work.
From Catmull: “A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision-making is
better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group.”
He stresses the point saying, “You are not your idea. So don’t identify too closely with it, lest you may take offense.”
So many organizational and relationship barriers can block candor: fear of retaliation from those more powerful, hesitancy to hurt someone’s feelings, and loss of momentum on a tight time frame. Catmull is unrelenting on this point—the leader must insist on, foster, and protect candor at all costs. He offers a telling example: early on, he convinced Pixar’s CEO Steve Jobs to refrain from attending Braintrust meetings. Catmull felt that Jobs’ strong presence would undermine the fluid truth-telling atmosphere central to the Braintrust’s value. Catmull considers candor so essential to Pixar’s storytelling success that any barrier must be identified, understood, and addressed. Period.
These examples cite the value of candor in leadership. Without it, we simply don’t achieve mission, success, and we will not win.