Honesty in Leadership: Create a Creative Culture in 4 Focused Ways

I am a full believer in authenticity and honesty in leadership. I believe the strongest leaders use honest life stories to humble themselves, connecting with those they’re leading. Creating a “me too” atmosphere from the top down bolsters confidence in everyone at every level, which often produces better work, profits, customer service, and employee culture.

As I continue diving into the lessons and philosophies of Ed Catmull, outlined in Creativity, Inc. I realize that honesty is important in the right way – a productive way. Using honesty in leadership can empower your employees and increase your success.

Give Them The Power

No, no really. Give your employees the ability to identify a problem and stop the process in hopes of fixing it. Give them the flexibility and authority to come up with a new idea and test it. If their solution fails this time, don’t vilify it, because next time it may be a great idea.

A lot of leaders say they want to empower their people and encourage new thinking. But when it comes to actually practicing it, all leaders see is dollar signs and risk – what is stopping the process and trying something new going to cost me. What if it doesn’t work?

But if you – as a leader – try to micromanage every problem, your inhibiting progress. Catmull believes honesty in your words and actions when it comes to giving your employees permission to try something new is paramount. He draws this philosophy from W. Edwards Deming and the influence of Japanese manufacturing. Catmull writes:

“The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line. If anyone at any level spotted a problem in the manufacturing process, Deming believed, they should be encouraged (and expected) to stop the assembly line… [This helped employees] feel the pride that came when they helped fix what was broken”


The key here is an employee doesn’t have to ask permission to take responsibility. And once they take responsibility, it’s a short jump to help foster ownership of responsibilities.

Confide In Your Employees

Honesty_In_Leadership_2.jpgThe President of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, Ed Catmull gives a talk to newly hired people at company headquarters, in Emeryville, Ca. on Thursday June 9, 2011.

Once employees own their responsibilities, honesty through confiding in your employees can help create the bridge to ownership for their work. Catmull explains:

“To confide in employees is to give them a sense of ownership over the information…by sharing problems and sensitive issues with employees, we make them partners and part-owners in our culture, and they do not want to let each other down.”

Additionally, confiding in your employees will give them permission to confide in you. “If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.” (Creativity, Inc.) The honesty in your leadership will nurture honesty from them.

However, blunt negative honesty can be detrimental. An experiment that studied the impact of leadership on employee accountability found:

“Encouraging employees to take responsibility for their decisions and actions, and to accept the associated outcomes, can result in extensive benefits for organizations. However, it is crucial that such circumstances take place in a supportive environment.  When this has been achieved, an organization can introduce greater accountability measures and benefit from the increased empowerment and autonomy it provides.” 

This leads me to Catmull’s underlying theme of my next two points: There is a right and wrong way to be honest.

Check Your Authority At The Door

Honesty doesn’t mean abusing your authority. Just because you are a leader, doesn’t mean your opinion matters in every situation. At Pixar, they created a feedback group called the Braintrust to help with the film making process. There are two important pieces to this feedback group that ensures it’s productive and valuable, without becoming abusive:

“The first is that the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling and, usually, people who have been through the process themselves” (Creativity, Inc.) Give advice only when you have the experience. If you have never been in marketing, don’t give feedback on how the next email campaign should go. If you have never been in finance, don’t give feedback on how to run accounts payable. Use your experiences to better those going through similar ones; don’t use them out of context

“The second difference is that the Braintrust has no authority. This is Crucial… We don’t want the Braintrust to solve a director’s problem because we believe that, in all likelihood, our solution won’t be as good as the one the director and his or her creative team comes up with.” (Creativity, Inc.) This is important. You are not there to solve problems. Your honest feedback is there to spark ideas and give perspective that might have been overlooked. You have value – that value isn’t in the form of solutions. Leave it to the expertise of the people you’ve hired to use your feedback to think of something even better.

Reasons To Not To Be Honest


You’ve heard the old expression, “If you have nothing nice to say don’t say anything at all?” This holds true in honesty in leadership as well. Bashing your employee isn’t productive. The same study mentioned above found, “When faced with increases in accountability, environments with abusive leaders experienced significant negative impacts on various outcomes, including job satisfaction, tension, and burnout.” In other words, a poor culture.

Use honesty to create a creative culture. When giving feedback, Catmull says:

“A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer.”

If you can’t write a good note, don’t negatively impact your culture with a bad one.