A Lesson in Leadership from James Cameron

James Cameron has written, directed and produced some of the most successful films of all time.

The most recent was Avatar. The film had an incredible budget and required the work of a team all organised toward achieving the vision of the leader.

When budgets get high in the film industry the pressure builds. It’s not that people want to see the movie fail, but there is more pressure to deliver results. The final product can be the defining moment – good or bad – for the leader.

The same can happen in business. Outsiders will look for failure while the leader and the team tries to make something happen when not many believe.

It’s human nature to believe in what has already been accomplished. It’s hard to see how something can succeed when it’s never been done.

For years now James Cameron has been able to succeed in the film industry. In a TED video he discussed his leadership process.

We’re going to examine Cameron’s leadership and speaking style and pull lessons you can use as you approach your business initiatives.

What’s interesting about the presentation is you feel a connection to James Cameron. You can feel his passion and with his leadership you feel like you want to be part of his team.

People naturally want to achieve great things in life and James Cameron seems to be able to lead people in pursuit of those incredible things.

In business it’s essential to get people on board with the goals of the organisation. As the leader it is your job to get people excited just as James Cameron does with his teams. This post will give you tools you can use to develop your own leadership style through presentation.

Adventure and Passion

In the beginning of the presentation James Cameron shares a quick story of his youth. He talks about his sense for adventure and his passion for nature and science. By sharing these stories he’s accomplishing two things.

First, he’s making it easy on himself to appear confident in the topic. The story is about him. He lived the experience so he’s confident in the telling of the story because of his experience. This allows his passion to come through and those listening are drawn into the presentation even more.

Second, the story is unique to the speaker, but the interesting thing about stories is we all relate them to our own lives. We think about our own curiosities when we hear the story of James Cameron exploring in the woods. Through the story James Cameron gets the audience to understand the point, which is the importance of curiosity.

Imagine the scene in your company. For months the executive team has been formulating a change in the business. Maybe you’re installing new software or maybe you’re adding a new service.

You can use a sense of adventure and passion to get the team on board with the change. Share a story of how the business has gone through change before. Talk about the journey to make the business better.

For Cameron it was laying out the idea of creating the film Avatar that was the adventure. He speaks about it toward the end of the presentation. He mentions that he wanted to have a situation where the team was committed to doing something that had never been done before.

The team knew they would be creating a movie, but the result was relatively unknown when they first began. There were visions and ideas, but the discovery of the destination and the adventure of getting there was the real promise and that’s how James Cameron got his team to follow him.

Willingness to Work

As you watch the presentation with Cameron you get the sense that he’s willing to do any work involved in the process of making a film. There is a distinct sense that he is a hard worker.

For the most part leaders in all fields need to be hard workers. You can think of it as leading by example. You don’t need to show that you do everything, but you do need to communicate to your team that you have a willingness to work. Doing hard work is contagious and the way your team works is a direct reflection of the leader, which in your case is you.

You need to communicate your willingness to do the hard work. There are two ways you can accomplish this during a presentation.

First, share stories again about your experience. Simply tell the story for the aspect of the story itself. You aren’t looking to boast about your accomplishments, but rather share a story. Stick to the details of the story. There will likely be struggle and sacrifice. Be honest in your delivery and it will come across in the presentation. The team will hear the story and figure out the hard work that was required. That is the key. You want them to figure out the hard work aspect through the story.

Second, when something comes up you have to be willing to get involved. Even during your presentation this is possible. If you leave time to ask questions and some individuals in the audience ask about specific work involved you can show willingness to get involved. Be honest, but show that you’re willing to be involved through the entire process. It’s obvious from the presentation that Cameron is involved in many aspects of the project and people respect that.

Earning Respect

At the end of the video James Cameron talks about earning the respect of his team. He said it’s one of the most important elements of success. Whether you’re leading a team to create a film like Avatar or leading a small business team, it’s essential to have the respect of each other.

You don’t need to necessarily like each other and be best friends, but the respect is crucial for success.

Your team needs to know you’re on board with doing hard work. They’ll follow your lead and they’ll respect your efforts to do the best you can for the good of the company.

Make sure the people on your team have the respect of each other. It’s your job as the leader to make sure the team dynamic works well. Keep them focused on the project and when there are issues get involved to figure out a solution. Most difficult situations arise from difficulties in getting the work done from one of the team members.

The Challenge

For the most part people like a challenge. The challenge for the team of filmmakers and technicians involved in Avatar was to create something on screen that had never before been done. There had been 3D movies before, but never something that was like Avatar.

In order to do something that has never been done before a person needs to accept that there will be incredible challenges along the way. Once the film was done it seems that James Cameron doesn’t even look at the finished product. He looks at the struggles along the way as the real reward of the task.

This is an important realisation. When you make a presentation to a team about an upcoming task you have to get them excited about the challenge and the task instead of the destination.

You probably already know the individuals in your organisation that will make the best team members, but if you need more validation you can talk about the challenge and the task. The individuals that show interest are the ones that are not in it for the destination and the results.

It’s a little bit of a contradiction, but in order to achieve strong results your team will need to seek the journey of the project or the initiative. It is the hard work involved throughout the process that will lead to success and without the right people on board you will not be able to get to the end.

James Cameron has led teams that have achieved great success in filmmaking. He has created a pair of the highest grossing films in box office history with Avatar and Titanic.

By watching him speak you can pick up on certain aspects of his approach to leadership that you can use to create your own team that is destined for success. Use your experience to fuel your confidence and passion. This aspect of leadership is contagious. You’ll naturally attract people that will be passionate about the same things. This sets you and the team up for success right from the beginning.

You might not be working on a film like Avatar, but you are working on important projects that need good results to keep your company growing.

Posted in Executive Speaking Skills, leadership

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  • http://vindvittra.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/dimman/ Roosevelt Franklin

    [his advice to young directors] The respect of your team is more important than all the laurels in the world. Don’t put limitations on yourself, other people will do that for you. Don’t do it to yourself, don’t bet against yourself and take risks. NASA has this phrase that they like “failure is not an option,” but failure HAS to be an option, in art and in exploration. Because it’s a leap of faith. And no important endeavor that required innovation was done without risk. You have to be willing to take those risks. In whatever you’re doing, failure is an option, but fear is not.

  • darrenf

    That’s a great point Roosevelt. If you don’t have failure as an option then you won’t push for new ground. It could make you tentative in what you do. It alos implies that you cannot quit a bad idea. If something is not working, let it fail and move on.

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