Directing a film involves getting an enormous group of people to work together on turning the image inside your head into a reality. In this 1970 interview, director Jean Renoir dispenses time-tested wisdom for leaders everywhere on humility, accountability, goal-setting, and more.
Many of us end up in leadership roles at some point in our career. Most of us, however, never get any training or instruction on how to actually be a good leader. But whether we end up offering formal or informal leadership, at some point we need to inspire or motivate people towards accomplishing a shared vision.
Directors are the leaders of movie productions. They assemble their team, they communicate their vision, and they manage the ups and downs of the filming process. Thus the experience of a successful director offers great insight into the qualities of a good leader. In 1970, film director Jean Renoir gave an interview with George Stevens Jr. of the American Film Institute where he discussed the leadership aspects of directing. His insights illustrate some important lessons. Renoir started out making silent films, and he continued filmmaking through to the 1960s. His two greatest cinematic achievements were the films The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). He received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1975 for his contribution to the motion picture industry.
In the interview, Renoir speaks to humility in leadership when he says, “I’m a director who has spent his life suggesting stories that nobody wanted. It’s still going on. But I’m used to it and I’m not complaining, because the ideas which were forced on me were often better than my own ideas.” Sometimes leaders have the best ideas. But often people on their team have excellent ones as well. It’s important to understand that leadership is not necessarily coming up with all the answers; it’s about putting aside your own ego to cultivate and support the contributions from your team.
Renoir suggests that the role of a director is to have a clear enough vision that you can work through the imperfections involved in executing it. “A picture, often when it is good, is the result of some inner belief which is so strong that you have to show what you want, in spite of a stupid story or difficulties about the commercial side of the film.” Good leaders don’t require perfection to achieve results. They work with what they have, often using creativity and ingenuity to fill in when reality doesn’t conform to the ideal image in their head. Having a vision is not about achieving exactly that vision. It’s about doing the best you can once you come into contact with reality.
When Renoir says, “We directors are simply midwives,” he implies that effective leadership is about giving shape to the talents and capabilities that already exist. Excellent leaders find a way to challenge and develop those on their team. In explaining how he works with actors, he says, “You must not ask an actor to do what he cannot do.” Rather, you need to work with what you have, using clear feedback and communication to find a way to bring out the best in people. Sometimes getting out of people’s way and letting their natural abilities come out is the most important thing to do.
Although Renoir says, “When I can, I shoot my scenes only once. I like to be committed, to be a slave to my decision,” he further explains, “I don’t like to make the important decisions alone.” Good leaders know when to consult others. They know to take in information from those who know more than they do and to respect different forms of expertise. But they still take accountability for their decisions because they made the final choice.
Good leaders are also mindful of the world outside the group or organization they are leading. They don’t lead in a vacuum but are sensitive to all those involved in achieving the results they are trying to deliver. For a director, it makes no sense to conceive of a film without considering the audience. Renoir explains, “I believe that the work of art where the spectator does not collaborate is not a work of art.” Similarly, we all have groups that we interact with outside of our organization, like clients or customers. We too need to run our teams with an understanding of that outside world.
No one can be good at everything, and thus effective leadership involves knowing when to ask for help. Renoir admits, “That’s where I like to have my friends help me, because I am very bad at casting.” Knowing your weaknesses is vital, because then you can find people who have strengths in those areas to assist you.
Additionally, most organizations are too complex for any one person to be an expert at all of the roles. Leaders show a lack of hubris when they assume they can do the jobs of everyone else well. Renoir explains this notion of knowing your role as a leader: “Too many directors work like this. They tell the actor, ‘Sit down, my dear friends, and look at me. I am going to act a scene, and you are going to repeat what I just did.’ He acts a scene and he acts it badly, because if he is a director instead of an actor, it’s probably because he’s a bad actor.”
Although leadership can be all encompassing, we shouldn’t be intimidated by the ideal list of qualities and behaviors a good leader displays. Focus on how you can improve. Set goals. Reflect on your failures, and recognize your success.
“You know, there is an old slogan, very popular in our occidental civilization: you must look to an end higher than normal, and that way you will achieve something. Your aim must be very, very high. Myself, I am absolutely convinced that it is mere stupidity. The aim must be easy to reach, and by reaching it, you achieve more.”