The Leadership Skills Every Director Should Have

We go over the key aspects to leadership and team management that puts any young director ahead of the curve the first time they step on set.

Recently on the NFS podcast, I shared the one book that I’ve found most valuable in my filmmaking careerand it may come as a surprise. It’s not Robert McKee’s Story or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat or even Christine Vachon’s Shooting to Kill.

It’s Harvard Business Review’s Top 10 “Must Reads” On Leadership.

In the film industry, we joke about the corporate world and its buzzwords, its allegiance to the bottom line over artistic merit, etc. But I’m here to tell you that Hollywood can learn a lot from the corporate world.

Our stereotype of successful directors and producers in Hollywood is the tormented auteur, barking orders, forcing crew to work long hours with little pay and difficult working conditions.

There’s this mantra in our industry that below-the-line workers must tolerate the abuses of set life until they have “made it” or achieved above-the-line status and can then turn around to abuse others.

Making movies does not have to be like this.

The most successful corporations understand that they are doomed for failure unless they cultivate healthy, respectful workplace culture.

As directors and producers, you have the power to end the toxic cycle and reimagine the “workplace culture” of Hollywood. Not only will it be healthier for us, as artists, but it will result in better films.

Directors and producers: here are three critical lessons from the corporate world about what makes a great leader—lessons that will set you apart from the crowd and set you up for a long, successful career in the industry.

1. Know your vision

I’m not talking about a lookbook for your film. I’m talking about your vision as a creator. In other words, what impact do you hope to have with your films, and with your career more broadly? What message do you want to share with the world? What are your values as a filmmaker, and how will you channel those values into your work?

Corporate workplace research has found that for employees to do their best work, they need to feel that they are a part of something meaningful. How is your work meaningful?

When I started my own production company, BorderWoman Pictures, the first thing I did was identify my vision… and to this day my mission statement is clear: “We make thought-provoking independent films that challenge mainstream stereotypes and bridge cultural divides. We amplify the voices of those in society’s margins, particularly women of color.”

Spend some time journaling and answering these questions for yourself. Then put those answers in a place where you’ll be reminded—on a sticky note at your desk, on a website, or in a document that you can reference again and again.

Once you’re clear on your vision, you will have a much easier time recruiting cast, crew, financiers, etc. to your projects, and empowering them to contribute to that vision.

2. Know your strengths and your weaknesses

When we first start as filmmakers, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of knowledge required to make a movie: cameras, lensing, lighting, story structure, casting, fundraising, shooting schedules, breakdowns, editing, directing actors, etc., etc., etc.

Some people in Hollywood will tell you that it’s your job as a producer or a director to have an answer for every single question that you get asked. “What should our main character wear in this scene? What lens should we use? Wide shot or medium close up?”

But the reality is, we do not know everything, nor should we put pressure on ourselves to do so. The best leaders know how to say, “I don’t know,” and invite collaborators into the conversation who can provide insight.

Think about it. The CEO of a large company cannot be expected to have all the skillsets of the accountant, the marketer, the designer, the engineer, and the recruiter. Rather, a CEO’s role is to guide the company and create a culture in which all of those workers’ skills are respected, supported, and working effectively toward the company’s goals.

The same thing applies in film.

Spend some time figuring out what you’re great at, and what you’re not so great at. Practice communicating your strengths and weaknesses clearly and without shame. “Hey, lenses are not my strong suit. What do you think?” or “I actually don’t have an opinion about what our character should wear here. Do you have a recommendation?”

You’ll find that your crew will respect you all the more for your honesty, and in turn, they’ll feel validated and appreciated for their knowledge.

3. Remember: it’s not about you

In the business world, they say that the best leaders “have ambition not for themselves, but for their companies” (that's Jim Collins in Level 5 Leadership). This can seem paradoxical in a culture where we glorify CEOs, heads of state, “geniuses,” visionaries… but the business world is littered with companies that failed or withered into mediocrity because the CEO’s head grew too big.

And this happens in Hollywood too. My favorite film industry example is chronicled in the documentary Overnight, about a group of first-time filmmakers who land a $300K deal with Harvey Weinstein (pre-#MeToo) and become so full of themselves as a result that Weinstein ghosts them before they even start production.

As an industry, Hollywood runs on ego. We read headlines about first-time directors that make a splash at Sundance and then get asked to direct a superhero movie, and we daydream that someday we, too, could be the next Ryan Coogler or Chloé Zhao. We want to see our name in the trades. We want that Netflix deal. We want this or that fellowship or grant or Independent Spirit Award.

But know this: ego will get you nowhere. The career that you are forging as a filmmaker is not about you. It’s about your message.

People don’t join your team just because you’re the one running it. They join your team because they believe in what you’re trying to accomplish.

So the next time you’re pitching a project, or trying to land financiers or actors, or hiring crew, you will have the best success if you can, one, identify your vision and your values clearly, and two, speak from a place of genuine humility. It may seem counterintuitive when you look at some of the major players in our field, but trust me: this approach will pay off in the long run.     

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3 Comments

These are great points and I agree with all of them. I would especially agree with 1 & 2 and would simply add that it's also important to be decisive. If you lean on others to help you make decisions, that's great. It shows you're not only honest about your weaknesses but that you're open to collaboration. It's just important to not waffle too much after they present you with their ideas. People want to feel heard but they also want clarity. Having vision doesn't necessarily mean that you know the difference between anamorphic and spherical lenses, for example, but once someone explains it to you (and you've listened to their case for one or the other) you should be able to articulate why one is right for the movie and the other one isn't. Whether you agree with their perspective or not, this will engender respect from crew members because they'll see that you're willing to listen to their perspective AND that you have clarity for what the story is in your own head - even if you don't have all the technical stuff figured out. Good post.

April 14, 2021 at 10:54AM

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Dale Raphael Goldberg
Writer / Director
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Roger Deakins shared an anecdote from when he was a young cinematographer starting out and he was worried because he didn't know how to operate the camera, what all the lenses are, etc. In short, he didn't know the equipment. The cinematographer he told that to (I want to say it was Conrad Hall) told Deakins that he didn't know all that shit, either. Hall hired a great camera crew for all of that. His job was not to know all the specifics of the equipment but to know how to compose the shot and let his camera crew translate that into action

April 14, 2021 at 12:32PM, Edited April 14, 12:33PM

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David Patrick Raines
Actor/Writer/Director
71

One of the best articles on directing I've read.

April 14, 2021 at 11:48AM

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David Patrick Raines
Actor/Writer/Director
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