About two years ago, Max Joseph, best known as the grey-haired cameraman from Catfish, took a meeting with the social platform Vero. Joseph had just finished directing his first feature film We Are Your Friends and the team at Vero wanted to know what he had planned next
And it just so happened that Joseph knew exactly what he would do if he had total creative control: visual essays.
“For basically three years I was doing Catfish and We Are Your Friends at the same time–it was like straddling two very long-term creative marriages,” Joseph says. “And when you’re in a long-term creative commitment, you tend to daydream and fantasize about smaller creative flings that you want to have.”
Joseph’s creative mistress has taken the form of Charismatic Thinker, a series of short films in which Joseph takes deep dives into questions and topics that he’s been ruminating on for years. The first chapter of his visual essays is “Dicks,” which explores whether or not you have to be a dick in order to be an effective leader, an issue Joseph ran smack into while shooting We Are Your Friends.
“I put a lot of time and energy into studying the art of filmmaking but I hadn’t put a lot of energy or time into the art of learning how to manage people,” Joseph says. “The first day on the job you quickly realized that the skill of managing people is almost more important than the skill of storytelling–if you can’t communicate what you want effectively and get the best out of everybody then you’re you’re screwed. I figured it out as best I could with trial and error, but I didn’t have any references to how to lead.”
Through interviews with directors (Davis Guggenheim, Peter Berg, Karyn Kusama), authors (Michael Maccoby, Aaron James, Adam Grant) and other creatives who are frequently in leadership positions, Joseph reached the conclusion that you can lead with compassion and collaboration, but you have to have your dick card at the ready should a situation call for it.
“People had told this to me before I directed the movie that you have to embrace your inner asshole. I didn’t want to believe that. I consider myself a diplomatic, open-minded person and I wanted to hear everyone’s idea. To a certain degree that did work out, but I quickly understood the wisdom of being a dick at certain times,” Joseph says. “I started to understand why dicks can be so effective and successful because they don’t really have the sensitivity or empathy. When it comes to creating a product or running a company, you need to prioritize the goal of the company or the creation of the product over and above every personal interaction you have.”
If you’re not a natural-born leader in the classic sense like Joseph, then you should definitely give “Dicks” a watch, but for the TL;DR set, here are his main takeaways from his interviews:
It sounds like a cliché but you really do need to have a vision. That vision doesn’t need to be set in stone. My vision tends to be more of like a puzzle that I’m putting together as opposed to a paint-by-numbers thing that’s already created. You can have different types of vision, but you do need to have a strong idea of what you want to accomplish whether it’s creating a product or the story you want to tell.
You need to believe in it to a certain degree that inspires other people to believe in it because if they’re just helping you because they’re getting paid or because you’re asking them nicely or because you’re being a dick to them and cracking the whip, none of those things work in the long-run. If there is not a larger idea at play, if you can’t sell people on how great this is going to be when it’s done, then people aren’t going to follow you to the end.
That doesn’t mean not listening to people–you definitely should listen to people but there’s also a time where you need to say, I’ve listened to everyone and this is what I’m going to do. You need to listen to everybody and make your decision, and then if something’s not working out, the last straw is that you have to be willing to be a dick and just say this is how it is. You’ve got to be willing to be tough. It’s not necessarily leading by being a dick. Most dicks that we think of, they lead by being dicks. The difference is you have to ultimately be willing to play that card, but maybe as a last resort.
Watch Charismatic Thinker here.