On the plane ride to London, I had the great pleasure of watching Monsters University, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite Disney movies Monsters, Inc. Yes, of course, this is a movie directed at children, but after my “Hakuna Matata” post, I thought this was only appropriate! In spite of Disney’s commercialization of the story, Mike Wazowski, the lead character, is, and will forever be, a model of leadership for me. When I read this quote in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, Mike was the obvious personification of these qualities:
“They find that leading for innovation is about (1) creating a world to which people want to belong – one in which individuals are affirmed in their identity (unleashing their ‘slices of genius,’ or talents) and are able to be a part of and contribute to something larger than themselves (harnessing the diverse slices of genius to develop innovative solutions for a collective purpose); (2) developing the individual and collective capacity for co-design; and (3) a leadership style that is more akin to leading from behind than leading from the front.”
In Monsters Inc., the screams of children power the city of Monstropolis. Monsters, like James P. Sullivan, sneak into closets to scare the children, bottle their screams, and power the city. In the end, though, the scream loses its power, and we wonder what will become of Monstropolis. As Handbook so eloquently stated, as one of its core values, an organization “needs to focus on innovation and adaptation and change if the organization is to sustain high levels of performance over time.”
Enter Mike Wazowski, a monster, though not your typical scary monster. Persistence and creative thinking open up solutions. Mike Wazowski knows he will never be able to make children scream like his partner, Sully, whether as a university student or later in Monstropolis. However, Mike is persistent and innovative, and he vows to support and resource Sully to make Sully the lead scarer. Creative thinking can be a game changer and a life-saver. Bumps will always be present in the roads and troubles may always lurk on the horizon, but good leaders will guide those around them with innovative thinking and creative solutions to overcome obstacles. This ability will not only foster creative solutions to an organization’s challenges, but also empower the members of the organization to grow and develop their own leadership potential.
Through the twists and turns of the movie, Mike learns laughter produces ten-fold the power of screams! His innovation and creativity soar, as he formulates a plan and returns to tell others at Monsters, Inc. of his discovery. In the final scene, monsters sneak in through closets and making children giggle, and the tremendous laughter fills energy canisters by the hundreds. Innovation powers the world, not just Monstropolis. Constantly and relentlessly the world is changing. Leaders must have the imagination and audacity to adapt, as innovation is vital. If one cannot improve, a leader runs the risk of moving backwards. Leaders must constantly search for the next big thing to power our world. As Walt Disney himself said, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”
Throughout the movies, both the original and the prequel, Mike Wazowski has the gift of courage and encouragement. It is through his innovative inspiration that he becomes an unexpected leader. He cares more for his team, and ultimately the success of his partner, than for himself. Mike sees the values in others, and he thus grows from the role of the standard self-promoter, to an altered and symbiotic state of mind. In essence, he led from behind, and encouraged those around them to flourish in their own right.
With a big smile, Mike delivers one of my favorite lines: “You’re the best, and don’t let anyone tell you differently!” Good leaders encourage those around them to be the expert at what they do. Each person is unique, and each person has something special to offer. Together, for the good of the organization, the group can bring their gifts forward and share with the group to create the “whole.” Going back to the quote first referenced, leaders must realize that sharing their vision and values is crucial to success. As Robert Greenleaf theorized, from a shared vision, the organization as a whole will accept the institutionalized discipline of structures and systems embodying those shared values.
“A shared vision creates discipline and order without demanding it. Conscience often provides the why, vision identifies what we are trying to accomplish, discipline represents how we are going to accomplish it, and passion represents the strength of feelings behind the why, the what and the how.”
The ability to facilitate this shared vision and passion is the mark of a true leader, and Mike Wazowski is a true leader.
 Nitin Nohria & Rakesh Khurana, “Advancing Leadership Theory and Practice,” in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, eds. Nitin Nohira and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), Kindle Location, 308.
 Jennifer A. Chatman & Jessica A. Kennedy, “Psychological Perspectives on Leadership,” in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, eds. Nitin Nohira and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), Kindle Location 2091.
 Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002).