Jason Reitman on Resilience

When’s the last time you had to make a difficult decision? As leaders, we do this every day. The choices are not always clear cut and there is no rewind. So how do we make the best judgments possible? As Jason Reitman, the award-winning director of such films as Juno and Up In the Air, discussed in a recent interview, it takes resilience.

When Jason first started out, he was presented with two conflicting options that would determine the rest of his career. Either he could direct the move Dude, Where’s My Car, or continuing working on his passion project, Thank You for Smoking. Dude was a wacky, lowbrow comedy that already had funding and studio approval. For a first time director, Jason would have been guaranteed a wide release and a needed paycheck.

Instead, Jason chose to work on a movie that was close to his heart. There were no assurances that he would be able to collect the necessary funds to make it and Jason knew that it would never get the attention of a broad comedy. But Jason had the foresight and fortitude to be aware that this decision would define every movie that followed. If he made a mass-market slapstick, then that’s how he’d be known. Jason preferred to garner a reputation as a cultured, intellectual moviemaker and he has.

My father [Ivan Reitman, producer of such classics as Animal House and Ghostbusters] wants to take your favorite song and play it better than you’ve ever heard it before.  I want to take your least favorite song and play it in a way that makes you love it.

In hindsight, Jason’s decision may seem obvious. I doubt it felt that way at the time. The book Resilience, Why Things Bounce Back defines resilience as the ability “to maintain core purpose and integrity among unforeseen shocks and surprises.” This involves a combination of optimism, creativity, and confidence. Like all leaders, he leaned on his resilience for the vision of what he wanted to achieve, the skills he possessed, and the hope that it would pay off.

So how do you build resilience? The American Psychological Association provides a few ideas:

  • Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better.
  • Move toward your goals. Develop realistic goals and do something regularly that enables you to move toward them.
  • Keep things in perspective. Consider the situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective.

David Dunn on Accountability

Not everyone in a leadership position dreamed of taking the helm. David Dunn was one such person. In the movie Unbreakable, David was thrust into a position of responsibility after being the lone survivor of a massive subway crash.

For most of his life, David had denied having superpowers – strength, resilience to injury, the ability to instinctively know whether someone was good or evil. His denial may have continued indefinitely, but David was confronted with a sadistic criminal who was hurting an innocent family. It was at this moment that David felt compelled to take action. It was at this moment that he became a hero.

David still wanted to live an ordinary life but he realized that he could no longer pretend to be like everyone else. Many leaders go through a similar experience. Some who did not willingly and/or consciously make the decision to lead were chosen because they had a reputation as being capable and trustworthy. Others were coerced because the situation demanded that someone take charge.

In the book The Art of Achievement Tom Morris wrote:

The best adventures in life need to be chosen, not from a predetermined menu based on what we’ve done already, but rather out of our deepest sense of who we are and how we can contribute to the world.

Regardless of how you’ve become the leader, once you’re in the job, success will be tied to your ability to affirm your role. This acknowledgment cannot be based on past accomplishments, but rather on your potential as a leader and your drive to use these skills to make a difference. This declaration takes a healthy ego, which is not to be confused with hubris. A healthy ego says, “I can do this,” whereas hubris is centered around feeling superior to others or entitled to the role.

If you don’t believe in your abilities, if you’re denying them the way David Dunn denied his superpowers, no one else will believe in you either. People need to feel like you have the confidence to lead. All the skills and abilities in the world don’t matter if the leader is wishy-washy and apprehensive.

If you’re still accepting the fact that you are a leader, ask yourself why you are the right person to lead the team. Why do other people look to you for guidance? Not sure why? Ask. There’s nothing wrong with digging into the skills you possess. It’s a great way to improve and grow.

Bruce Banner on Willpower

A brilliant scientist was once accidentally exposed to the blast of a gamma bomb where he absorbed a massive amount of radiation. As a result, whenever he experiences extreme emotional stress he involuntarily transforms into a giant, green Hulk-like figure. How many leaders suffer from the same affliction?

The Bruce Banner/The Hulk dichotomy demonstrates the need for willpower. The Banner side is so worried about his potential loss of control that he secludes himself, attempting to avoid meaningful relationships, public places, and stressful situations. Instead of learning to control his emotions, he withdrawals from society.

Repressed feelings can only be contained for so long. If emotions do not have an outlet, at some point they will find a way to be released. As Banner says, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” And he’s right, because on the other end of his emotional spectrum is his alter ego, the Hulk.

The Hulk is a monster with uncontrollable anger. He cannot be reasoned with – he’s driven by a single goal of demolishing whatever is in his path. When theHulk’s temper has subsided and the anger is out of his system, he reverts back to Banner who is ashamed of his Hulk-based persona. This remorse causes Banner to repress even more, thus the detrimental cycle starts all over again.

Self-discipline is the ability to make yourself do what you should do, when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not. — Elbert Hubbard

Many leaders teeter on the same gamut of emotional reactions. In uncomfortable or stressful situations, they either “Hulk out” or “Bruce Banner-ize” frustrations when they really need to practice willpower, i.e., not being a victim to their moods. This isn’t just “fell good” advice. Research shows that leaders who maintain a healthy dose of willpower are: happier, higher performers, and ultimately more successful.

When circumstances arise, leaders must be alert to how they feel and then willfully decide how they are going to respond. The response they ultimately choose is not always what they would bring self-gratification (screaming, ridicule, and/or chastising), but it will lead to a more constructive outcome.

Ferris Bueller on Informal Leadership

In 1986, a young man had a dream. He wanted to take a day off. We could discuss the leadership abilities he displayed in persuading his best friend to “borrow” his father’s expense car or how he managed to lead a parade down the streets of Chicago. More interesting, from a leadership perspective anyway, is what we learn when Ferris Bueller is not around.

If you haven’t seen the movie, the basic rundown is the Ferris fakes an illness so he can skip school. Word gets out quickly and we soon learn that Ferris is basically the de facto ruler of his community. He receives gift baskets at his home from teachers. Every kid in school is taking about how sick he is. Even convicts in the police station are concerned.

How does Ferris do it? He holds no position of authority. He is not rich and/or powerful nor is he related to anyone who is. Whether it’s his charisma, caring nature, or overall personality, Ferris has the “it” factor. If he offers an opinion, people will listen and follow.

Those in a leadership position must be mindful of who their informal leaders. To identify these informal leaders, Jon Katzenbach suggests spending time throughout the organization. A personnel file will not list the information you need; it’s with the people. “Informal leaders who are the outstanding ones,” Jon states, “are actually easy to identify because everyone knows who they are.”

Once you’ve identified the informal leaders, determine the extent of influence they possess. Do they support you or are they an adversary? If they are working against you, can you salvage the relationship or are they harmful to the workplace?

You will be more successful if you work with your informal leaders. Put them on committees to help improve the workplace. Give them the opportunity to weigh in new programs before they roll out.

These leaders have their pulse on the culture of your workplace. Their input can help you craft a message that others will be receptive to hearing. And, when others see that you have these informal leaders’ support, everyone else will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Stephen King on Public Speaking

Whether it’s a department meeting in a small conference room or an arena-sized launch party, you cannot lead without speaking to people…publicly…and in large groups. If just reading this sentence makes you anxious, then you won’t like this next part – the effectiveness of whatever you’re about to say hinges on your opening.

Stephen King, one of the most successful authors of the last century, recently said that he can spend years writing the perfect opening sentence of a book. Why does this matter so much? As Stephen stated, “…an opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

The content of your presentation is obviously important. How you begin it sets the tone for whatever you’re about to discuss. If done well, it will catch people’s attention and instill some curiosity.

Seem obvious? Then why are you beginning meetings with, “Let’s get started” or “What’s first on the agenda.” If having an opening seems like a time killer, consider that Stephen’s opening line can be as short as five words. Not elaborate, but purposeful and well thought out.

[The opening line is] the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there’s incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen. – Stephen King

We may think that since we are the leader, others have to listen. The logic in this is understandable, but misguided. Having to sit there while you talk should not be confused with attentively listening and/or caring about what you’re saying.

Before you begin a presentation, consider what you’re about to present and why it matters. Then, craft an opening that will make an impact.  An article from Inc.com offers a few suggestions:

  • Start with the unexpected
  • Make is about them
  • Get to the point
  • Arouse emotion
  • Keep it short