In Reinventing the Wheel Part 2: The CEO Must Go we concluded with the question:
If the CEO is the one person that stands between a thousand workers and our ability to control our own situation (…) why do we think we need to keep them around? And more importantly, why does every new solution we propose and every new company we try to start simply assume they must exist and include them in its makeup?
I’ve found, through numerous discussions, that many of us seem to have a deep frustration with the decisions of our leaders, but begin with the assumption that this basic structure is a fundamental pillar of any successful company and can not or should not be altered.
When you stop to think about it, this is somewhat perplexing given the state we recognize our industry to be in. Couple that with the fact that those of us who aren’t focused primarily on getting out of the industry are all working very hard to find new solutions to stabilize and improve our industry and ensure we have a future doing this work that is our passion.
Yet all of our current solutions and long-shot ideas are still trying to solve the problem from within this basic structure, and failing to examine the problems inherent in the structure itself.
The Five Defenses
Before we can really talk about solutions that involve a fundamental restructuring of the business, first I think we need to take a moment to lay out the most common defenses to the idea of a Steve Jobs-less company.
While some people immediately embrace the idea of an artist run studio; for whatever reason, many of our initial reactions to the idea of a VFX/Animation company owned and democratically operated by the artists tend to be critical, dismissive, and otherwise in defense of the current system. I like to believe it’s because we’re all pretty intelligent, creative people who understand that good ideas need scrutiny in order to become great ideas. At least I hope so.
Because these defenses seem to emerge from ideologies so deeply ingrained in the way we think about the business that we often have difficulty at first looking beyond them, I’ve given each defense a “complex” from which it often stems. While there are other critiques that often come up when discussing other aspects, I’ve encountered five defenses (and five “complexes”) that seem to be the most common when discussing a company with the kind of inverse accountability model implied by democratic leadership.
I should preface all this by noting that while these almost always come up in conversations about this, these were also reactions I’ve probably had myself at one point or another. Working through them, often with the help of others, has given me a bit of perspective I’d like to share.
Someone has to lead the company (The Exceptionalism Complex)
The basic argument that “Someone has to lead the company” tends to be one of the first two defenses raised when challenging the traditional corporate hierarchy. It is firmly grounded in wide-eyed American exceptionalism (if not a tinge of ego and self-delusion). At its core is the notion that exceptional companies must be run by exceptional individuals. It immediately conjures glamorized images of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Walt Disney & Scott Ross (I put that one there for you Scott). The people who often inspire us and embody our own sense of creativity and innovation.
There are a few less flattering and less idealistic things buried not so deep within this defense that are worth bringing to the surface. At one extreme is the notion that the purpose of all this skill we’ve cultivated is to enable us serve the vision of exceptional individuals. On the other, more ego-centric side of that coin is the harbored belief that we, ourselves, are those exceptional individuals who will one day have people serve our brilliant vision.
The reality, however, is that many of the companies in our business are run by the lesser brilliance of the John Textor’s (Digital Domain), David Jeffers (MPC) & Bob Osher’s (SPI/SPA) of the world. These people are not exceptional. One might even argue leaders like these are little more than unduly privileged men with mediocre ideas and egocentric or sociopathic tendencies who have found themselves, through a mixture of luck, ego, politicking, and ruthlessness, in a position to use our skills and our livelihoods as chips on the roulette table at the corporate casino.
In reaction to leadership like this, I’ve often heard more entrepreneurial artists boldly proclaim that with their good ethics, great ideas, and experience in the lower rungs of the industry they would themselves be these fair, compassionate leaders. In other words, bad leaders are just bad people. With this I wholeheartedly disagree… okay maybe half-heartedly.
Frankly, I think it’s naive to believe that our idealism and depth of conviction would shield us from making the same bad choices. Sure if we’re running a Pixar or an Apple and swimming in that kind of success, we may have the luxury of being those wonderful idealistic leaders. But when we’re running that company that we find ourselves struggling to keep afloat, struggling to compete in the marketplace, struggling get work from the big 6 studios, struggling to pay the overhead, struggling to keep our owners/investors/clients confident and our stock from nosediving; just like the rest of them we’re going to be forced to make decisions that pit our ideals against the success of the company. I’ve heard many good, decent people argue that despite their dislike for these leaders, John Textor’s ideas were sensible but just poorly timed or executed or that Bob Osher “saved” Imageworks. Never mind that their brilliant leadership has made their once pioneering companies the bottom-feeders of the industry, eating the scraps left behind by bigger, smarter fish with more discriminating palates.
Even the more respected and idealistic leaders, from Ed Catmul to John Hughes have had to make decisions in the interest of their company (wage fixing, cheap-labor outsourcing) that were counter the interest of the people who work there. This is because the current system forces us to view the company and the workers as separate entities. A decision made in the interest of one is not necessarily made in the interest of the other, and quite often they conflict. Could you imagine if David Jeffers decided it was important to pay people a competitive wage, pay overtime, and create a more positive work environment? MPC has been getting loads of work and there’s a good chance that would evaporate if they incurred more cost by treating people better.
But what is a creative company, really, if not the artists and engineers who make it up? The name “Industrial, Light & Magic” or “Weta Digital” has only so much temporary value without the core team of 15-25 year veterans and VFX supervisors they keep employed. These people are not silent drones who merely keep their heads down and execute the vision of management; they actively influence their decisions.
One might even argue that some of these companies have been as innovative as they have because their leadership acted less like the traditional tycoon’s of Apple and Microsoft (or at least their glamorized public image), and more like conduits for the great ideas of the talent they employ. To their credit, these companies seem to recognize this to some degree.
Even a recent, otherwise positive, New York Times article on the transformative potential of Worker Cooperatives perpetuated this ideology of exceptionalism:
One perennial criticism of worker co-ops is that they can’t afford the high-flying talent that would help them innovate. But not every company needs to innovate.
While I give the author praise for many other points, she never challenges the notion that innovation requires “high-flying talent”, but merely goes on to say why some businesses don’t need it. While I agree that innovation need not be the focus of every company, the implication that innovation can only come by affording the salaries of big egos and high paid executives could not be further from what I’ve witnessed in this industry. More often than not I’ve seen powerful, innovative, passionate ideas completely stifled or ignored by higher-ups in VFX/Animation studios. When innovation does occur at big companies, it often occurs because the leadership at these companies stepped out of the way or trusted their artists and fostered their creativity.
We get so caught up in the glamour of these exceptional individuals that we forget even at a place like ILM, left only to Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy & Dennis Muren (who is a brilliant guy), Jurassic Park would have unquestionably been stop motion (sorry, GO-motion) and not CG. It was only the persistence and determination of the lesser-known artists at the time (Steve Williams, Mark Dippe, Stefen Fangmeier, etc), who rebelled against the good-sense of their leadership, that turned Jurassic Park into one of the greatest, most groundbreaking Visual Effects movies of all time.
Again, what helped them innovate was not their brilliant leadership, but rather their ability to embrace the innovation that was happening almost in spite of them. (…continue reading to part 2)
Next Up (Tuesday):
The Five Defenses Part 2: The Obstinate Individualism Complex