I’m pretty certain that after I read Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull that their sales rocketed in the education sector. I talked and talked about this book until I was heard. If people didn’t buy it for themselves, I was ordering it for them. Let me explain why.


Ed Catmull is both the president of Disney Animation Studios and the founder and president of Pixar Animation Studios. His book is autobiographical, sharing both the challenges and successes he faced. It also shows how he did things differently. I believe that there are key lessons to be learned from him. Since teaching is an artform, the skills are absolutely transferrable. I want to focus on two aspects: Embracing Failure and Removing Fear and Candid Feedback is a Gift.


Embracing Failure and Removing Fear

Fear of failure immobilises people with devastating effects. Fear is a life-sucking parasite in schools. It often comes from how a headteacher responds to the immediate pressures that they are under from all directions, whether ofsted or exam results. Fear filters down from the leaders and permeates through an entire culture. It causes whispering in the corridors and stops people from fulfilling their potential.


Catmull has identified that in ‘a fear based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative.’ In education, we can’t settle for good enough because truthfully there are too few examples of great practice.


Catmull argues that fear and failure must be uncoupled with surgical precision. Without fear, failure turns from our greatest enemy to our greatest ally. He provides some really helpful strategies for this to happen:


  1. Leaders need to be vulnerable. Unless leaders are able to face their own personal failures, neither will anyone else. Leaders need to face failures without defensiveness and with a willingness to change.
  2. We need to ‘disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognise both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.’
  3. Continually seek out fear and address it. Fear has been described as a acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. We need to seek out where fear seeps in and address it head on.


Candid Feedback is a Gift

Once fear and failure are uncoupled the potential for growth is incredible. I believe that there are two types of fear that will reveal themselves: Fear of being found out and Fear of Rejection. Catmull explained that these fears worked together to stop effective feedback from happening.


The first thing he did was to take away the moral obligation which accompanies honesty, instead he used the language of candour. It is much easier to challenge people on their level of candour compared to their level of honesty. Catmull claims “without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”


Catmull recognises that people are resistant to self-assessment. In fact, cognitive dissonance plays a huge part in our failure to reflect and receive feedback. ‘Looking inward, to them, often boils down to this: “We are successful, so what we are doing must be correct.” Or the converse: “We failed, so what we did was wrong.” This is shallow.’


To address this, Catmull’s feedback system is built on empathy. If the leaders leave their pride at the door and admit that they’ve been through failures themselves, their colleagues are less likely to be massaging their ego and will receive feedback.


Catmull created a team of experts called ‘The Braintrust’. This team regularly gave candid feedback to others. With every piece of verbal or written feedback, they considered whether it was in service of their common goal: supporting and helping each other as they try to make better movies.


To truly learn from failure through candid feedback, Catmull ensured four things happened:


  1. Consolidate What’s Been Learned
  2. Teach Others Who Weren’t There
  3. Don’t Let Resentments Fester
  4. Use the Schedule to Force Reflection


I recently attended the Future Leaders Foundations. One of their mottos is ‘feedback is a gift’. Personally, receiving feedback is the most challenging thing. It is easy to feel like you are being attacked and that you have to defend yourself. We don’t want people to see our weak spots. And worse, we don’t want them to say these to us. Because if they are spoken, they suddenly become a reality.


As a leader, responding to feedback, both in the moment and afterwards, is pivotal in helping others to do the same. It is about separating who we are from what we do. It is about raising the priority of the goal: improving the life chances of pupils through an excellent education.