Finding the Healthy Tension Between Being Confident and Collaborative
Over the course of my career, I’ve had the privilege of working with people doing extraordinary things: inventors, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, and even a Buddhist master. They are pioneers who shatter norms, change paradigms, and delight us in new ways. Despite vast differences in their styles, personalities, and fields of endeavor, they have striking parallels in what made them successful. Namely, they combine their talent with an important balance between self-confidence and collaboration.
In my personal experiences with leaders such as the late Steve Jobs of Apple, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter of Pixar, and Buddhist master Segyu Rinpoche, I saw their confidence come through in several ways:
First, they live by vision, and they have the courage to stick with it. Long before a computer-animated feature film was technically possible, Catmull and Lasseter were determined to make one. The many obstacles kept them on the edge of failure for years, but they held onto their vision. Similarly, Jobs never gave up on his dream for Apple to become the next great consumer electronics company — even during the 12 years he was away from it. And Rinpoche is deeply committed to a higher purpose: resurrecting a tradition of meditation that heightens human contentment by balancing outer attainment with inner mastery.
At the same time, these pioneers focus on the details. They believe they know best about how their ideas should be realized and won’t let up until their high standards are met. Jobs is legendary for this: He weighed in on everything from a product’s functionality to the design of its packaging. I saw Lasseter bring the same attention to every frame of Pixar’s films. And I know that Rinpoche considers no detail of a meditation practice or ritual too small for his attention.
Another factor magnifying the self-assurance and resolve of these individuals is how deeply they know the history of their fields. Jobs studied and could recount the past of not just the computer industry but also the consumer electronics industry. Catmull has often said that any filmmaker who wants to experiment with storytelling must first master traditional story structure. And Rinpoche is a walking encyclopedia of the 2,500-year history of meditation, having studied with some of Tibetan Buddhism’s finest teachers for more than 30 years. However, these types also flaunt convention. They have an infectious, rebellious energy and are always seeking to break barriers, fight bureaucracy, and question the status quo. Their deep knowledge of history enhances their confidence to make these paradigm-shifting changes.
While all these aspects of confidence are necessary to achieve greatness, the collective effect can careen out of control if left unchecked. The well-publicized Apple Lisa, original Macintosh, and NeXT Computer debacles were blamed on Jobs’s arrogance, and Pixar’s production of Toy Story ground to a halt due to unresolved story problems.
We need a counterweight: collaboration. The challenge is that the self-confidence needed to boldly push forward conspires against the yielding necessary for great collaboration. Leaders like Jobs, Catmull, Lasseter, and Rinpoche overcome this challenge in two ways.
First, they surround themselves with the right people. The standard is talent — a superb capacity to contribute. Politics and seniority have little place in this consideration. Pixar honed it to an art with its now-famous “Brain Trust,” the small team of accomplished storytellers tasked with assisting directors in developing their films. Even top executives were excluded. Jobs is famous for tolerating only A players. And Rinpoche maintains a close circle of his own teachers and select students that have studied with him for years.
They also listen to ideas and criticism. This does not mean they’ll change their vision or their opinions on execution. But successful collaboration means that even self-confident leaders keep themselves open to hearing and evaluating what trusted others have to say, and they resist what is often the downfall of great collaboration: confirmation bias, giving too much weight to views that validate one’s own. When he was at his best, Jobs had a very small circle of hand-picked advisors and put aside his stubborn intensity to pay attention to their advice. With an inspiring combination of mastery and humility, Rinpoche partnered with four of his students to found the Juniper Foundation to achieve a similar result.
Excellence requires two attributes that make for uneasy bedfellows: bold self-confidence and a willingness to collaborate. When a leader has both, I have seen great things happen.