Editor’s Note: Jim Henson died on May 16, 1990. In honor of the 25th anniversary of his passing, we are re-running this celebration of his leadership.
Jim Henson is remembered as a visionary artist and the creator of the Muppets, but he was also the boss of hundreds of employees who called him “fearless leader.”
Dave Goelz, who performs Gonzo, recalled: “We had a reunion last year, and many past employees came. Over and over we heard them say it was the best job they ever had.” It almost seems over-the-top, but when you see tears well up in Frank Oz’s eyes at the funeral of his friend and mentor, it dispels all cynicism.
We intuitively know that Henson was a “good boss.” But how should we define a “good boss,” and better yet, how can we become one? Brian Henson has said of his father:
He taught me to identify a person’s talent, nurture that talent, and encourage them to look to themselves for a solution.
A good boss, like a good teacher, empowers his employees. This, though, is too easy to say and very hard to actually do. Most of us have egos that get in the way, worrying we will be thought of as too soft, slow, or indecisive. Henson’s agent said he “rarely spoke above a whisper.” Henson’s wife Jane said he was “so patient she sometimes want[ed] to kick him.” The creator of Kermit the Frog had what was indeed a very rare management style.
In our era of interconnected gadgets, we tend to exalt the self-made men of Silicon Valley, hard-headed entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, because they cut through the traditional business models and invent their own way of doing business. Yet biographers paint Jobs as egotistical and abrasive. According to Pixar profiler David Price, “He made a habit of informing Atari engineers that they were moronic and their designs were lousy.” To Jim Henson, this kind of “leadership” wasn’t necessary.
It is easy for CEOs to say that they want to foster creativity, but it takes a radical approach to actually create that kind of environment. Steve Jobs famously put only two bathrooms in the Pixar Studio so people would be forced to interact. Yet this is superficial and dictatorial, not to mention inconsiderate to employees’ bladders. The real way to create innovation and collaboration is by setting an example–starting with oneself.
Longtime Muppets writer Jerry Juhl called Henson’s spirit “infectious”:
One of the images that I think we all have of Jim that we’ve seen repeatedly is Jim standing in the studio with his hand in the air and a puppet and he’s laughing uncontrollably. Everything has come to a complete stop, and that kind of infectious enthusiasm kind of spread through all casts and crews, and Jim balanced that with a desire to do the work as well as possible. So you were working at the top of your form, but you were also having as much fun as possible, and I think that was very infectious.
Martin Baker, one of Henson’s producers said, “You can’t replace someone like that–he was [a] true one off–you don’t replace them.” As uncommon as Henson was as a leader, I hope this isn’t true. I hope his management style can be replicated. Let us imagine for a minute that anyone can manage talent like Henson. What might that look like?
Muppet Show Profiler Christopher Finch wrote:
Henson is a good listener and if someone has an idea that is better than his own, he accepts it without hesitation. It is because of this that the others listen to him and accept direction without feeling resentment.
His assistant Alex Rockwell recalled:
[A] good idea could come from anywhere . . . even this guy who I think was the janitor in the building would come up to him almost every other day and have an idea, and Jim would sit and actually really listen to the idea and if he liked it he would actually comment on it and say, “Write it down.”
If the idea wasn’t good, Henson certainly knew it, but he would express it in a very productive way. Producer Duncan Kenworthy explained:
If he thought something hadn’t been done well, he would never ever say that, and he’d say, “Hey, I wonder if we just should try . . .” and somehow he would turn the corner and it would be a positive. “Let’s try it a different way.” He would never say, “God, that doesn’t work.”
Henson phrased all criticisms as a compliment plus a what-if: I like this, but what if we try this. It was the way he treated his own work and so it was the natural way to treat the work of others. He didn’t stigmatize failure, because it was part of the process. Dave Goelz remembered:
A very common image that I’m sure is burned into all of us is Jim watching the playback on a monitor of some other people’s characters, and just laughing. He on one hand was intent on refining every take, every subsequent take, but at the same time, he enjoyed every one for what was good about it, and we, I remember, most of us couldn’t do that. We watched playbacks and thought, ughhh, blew that, blew that, gotta get that cue faster. He was just very delighted to be a part of it all, and he was–next take was better.
In the 1972 special The Muppet Musicians of Bremen, Kermit’s friends escape from four terrible bosses. One is miserly, one fearful, one lazy, and one angry, and all four of them are thieves. These four are the worst bosses a creative person could have. By contrast, Henson was the opposite of each one. No one ever saw him get angry. Far from lazy, he worked harder than anyone in his company–he rarely slept. He was not fearful, but legendarily innovative, as Jerry Nelson said, “not afraid to try something new.” And instead of miserly, Henson was generous, going well over budget in order to give others the time and space to create.
Bad bosses make their work harder for themselves, because the more greedy, fearful, angry, and lazy you are, the harder it becomes to compel others to do good work. If you are not productive as a boss, then it becomes necessary to trick your workers into productivity. On the other hand, by being fearless, hardworking, generous, and calm, Henson’s attitude easily spread out in a contagious way to those around him.
Juhl said of Henson:
Year after year we watched him push himself beyond what we could possibly imagine. You had to try to keep up with the guy–it only seemed fair.
Jim Henson didn’t need to lead by pulling rank or putting anyone down. He set the tone with his behavior–fearless, hardworking, generous, and calm–and allowed those qualities to radiate outwards from the center.
Adapted from Make Art Make Money: Lessons From Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens
—Elizabeth Hyde Stevens teaches “Muppets, Mickey, and Money” at Boston University and “Business Rhetoric” at the Harvard Extension School. She is the author of Make Art Make Money: Lessons From Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career, available in ebook, paperback, or audiobook.