Leadership lessons from a scene from ‘Finding Nemo’.
I’m a great Pixar fan. I still remember the awe I felt when I first watched Toy Story and even greater growing awe as I learned about Pixar’s journey as a company. Many leadership lessons can be learned from Pixar’s journey, and there are no shortage of materials to help you do so. Books, case studies, documentaries. (If you don’t know the story I highly recommend reading ‘Creativity, Inc’ by Ed Catmull) .
But I wanted to point out that leadership lessons don’t just come from Pixar’s journey but also from their movies and content. There is one in particular with a scene that masterfully provides the most complete, comprehensive and entertaining display of leadership in mere 3 minutes.
Remember this scene?
For those who won’t or can’t watch the 3 minute video, it’s a scene where Marlin (Nemo’s dad) is reunited with Nemo (and Dory) amidst a school of fish. A fishing boat casts a net and traps a large number of fish including Dory. Nemo, despite Marlin’s plea, voluntarily swims into the net to save Dory while telling Marlin to tell everyone to “swim down”. More and more fish swim down and pull against the fishing boat, the combined pulling force of the fish eventually breaks the boat’s beam that is supporting the fishing net. The net sinks loosely onto the ocean floor and all the fish escape.
Here are a list of leadership advice along with their respective actions taken in the scene.
Provide clear direction and goal
: “swim down”, “come on! Let’s get to the bottom.” “Almost there!”
Nemo immediately jumps into action, and tells everyone to “swim down”, and later cries “let’s get to the bottom”. He doesn’t say “We need to combine our strength to pull against the fishing net until we break the net”, instead he is able to distill his plans into a clear actionable direction, “down”, and as they progress and are able to see the ocean bottom, he provides a further actionable goal of “get to the bottom”.
Keep it simple throughout the process
: “Keep Swimming”
Once the direction is set and people (fish) are moving in sync, he continues to deploy a simple message that is understandable and actionable. “keep swimming (keep doing what you are doing)”. As the simple message propagates throughout the group, you can hear all the other fish chanting “keep swimming” which ensures that the message is understood by everyone in the net.
: At first it seems hopeless but they don’t give up.
Early on, the boat lifts the net and Dory and Nemo both end up out of water. Nemo’s idea don’t seem like it is working. But the collective persisted through the encouragement of Marlin who is still in the water. Other fish still in the water eventually are able to contribute enough to the collective force and the net slowly starts to pull back into the ocean.
Get people around you to enforce the vision and goal
: “tell all the fish to swim down”. “you have to tell everyone to swim down together”
Nemo doesn’t jump into it alone. He tells Marlin to “tell all the fish to swim down” and says to Dory “you have to tell everyone to swim down together”, who both help get the message across the collective. He essentially recruited people (fish) who he knows will buy into this vision and employed their help. This also ensured that when Nemo and Dory were unavailable (due to being out of water and suffocating), Marlin was able to ensure the group persisted.
Encourage each other
: “Come on Dad” “you’re doing great son!”
As the net is slowly pulled down, Nemo and Marlin exchange words of encouragement “Come on Dad” and “You’re doing great son!”. The journey is long and hard. Its OK, no its essential, to rely on others for emotional support.
Nemo has taught me that when a leader can align all the resources within an organization toward a common goal amazing things happen. Including saving people’s (or fish’s) lives against the seemingly inevitable.
*I have verbally shared by thoughts on the scene with some friends in the past and some have pointed out an obvious short-coming. Which is that Nemo is an animated movie about talking fish and drawing real-life conclusions from it may to be stretch. Fair, but I point out that Aesop’s Fables are fictional stories used to educate and provide ethical guidelines for millennia.