Five Lessons the Film Industry Can Teach Us About Creative Leadership

Business leaders can learn fresh approaches from the directors who inspire and lead teams of thousands.

At the international Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016, a member of the audience asked me: what lessons can we learn from the film industry about creative leadership? I’ve been pondering the answer ever since.

The festival heard from filmmakers such as Sir David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley and Michael Moore, and screened hundreds of new documentaries from around the world. These films were made by people who are leaders in their own way; from the group of neighbours protesting about the destruction of their local woodland, to the international pioneers showing the effects of climate change on global security.

It was fascinating to think about the creative journeys these filmmakers had been on, from inception through to outcome. And it made me wonder – what could leaders from other industries learn from their endeavours?

Production companies and network channels run like any other business with a core of staff and the normal administrative functions. Yet the making of a film is a very different beast – sometimes involving thousands of people, many of whom are specialist freelancers who haven’t necessarily worked together before. The type of leadership needed is quite different from that of the operational leader.

So what attributes of leadership can we learn from them?

1 The ability to empower

This is distinct from the skill of delegation; these leaders create conditions in which creativity can happen. As one producer said to me: “It’s paradoxical. I have to make sure the whole thing works and yet I can’t interfere. The closer I get, the less creative they become. If they start to do something just to please me, we’ve lost the essence.”

2 Giving balanced, considered, constructive and appreciative feedback

The leader of creatives knows they give a little bit (or a lot) of themselves every time they work. It’s always personal. This can be advantageous as creatives are typically deeply engaged – but disadvantageous as they can veer from arrogance to vulnerability. Telling a director that their film isn’t good is akin to saying their child is ugly! These leaders must draw on a range of influencing skills and tactics to manage performance.

3 Using instinct and experience – and taking risks

As one senior commissioner said: “Without your instinct you’re nothing. Of course you consult with others, but when you come across a really strong pitch you just know it, and it’s then you bring your experience to bear. It’s like a first date; if you over-analyse it, you let doubts dominate your thinking.” Creative leaders know that if some of their ideas don’t fail, they’re probably not risking enough.

4 Staying sanguine

In the film and TV industry, there’s a much closer proximity to audiences than in many other sectors. Ratings can make overnight decisions that are worth millions. Keep a flagging movie going or pull it early? Sack the presenter and try someone new? The industry gets feedback like no other – which requires nerves of steel, the ability to know when it’s time to stop and a leader who can quell anxieties sufficiently so that people can recover quickly, ‘pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and start all over again’.

5 Embracing diversity

Creative leaders draw different skills, perspectives, experiences and voices to each and every production. They bring together surprising groups of people to create surprising content. They must therefore nurture an environment where all voices are valued and matter deeply, because without them there is no disruption and – most importantly of all – no innovation.

So, how might you draw on these five lessons to nurture and lead an environment of creativity?

© Linda Aspey 2016.

This article first appeared in People Management Online, July 2016