Filmmaker Says Leaders Can Build a Hero Culture

By Mary Margaret Yodzis 

Brett Culp opened AGA’s National Leadership Training (NLT) 2020 in Washington, D.C., with a message of hope and encouragement. The veteran filmmaker and documentarian, speaking to a record-breaking number of NLT attendees, stressed the importance of positive “superhero” leadership in achieving the greatest results from people. 

Culp said it begins with the ability to see every challenge as an opportunity to make a positive impact. But this chance to make good things happen is not limited to the few. Rather, each individual possesses the capacity to embrace leadership and effect change. “We are all powerful,” said Culp. “There is light everywhere.”

In his work making films about ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary things, Culp said the lessons he has learned easily apply to any field. All leaders, for example, can empower others to carry out the organizational mission with passion and confidence through encouragement. “Identity drives behavior. People rarely rise above [the way they believe they are defined or categorized]. But leaders tell people the truth about what they really are and how they can make an impact. With encouragement, people can see themselves as heroes, and then they will act like heroes.”

Culp noted that a great work culture is one in which all staff members feel welcome to express their ideas and passion to accomplish the shared mission. In a society beleaguered with “terrible headlines,” he said it is easy to “forget the truth” that people want good things. “Leadership is inviting people on a mission to do something extraordinary together…. It’s more than just tasks and to-do lists. It’s about framing your work within the mission and making it a team effort.” 

Culp underscored the importance of listening as leaders. “Every voice matters, and every voice needs to be heard,” he said. For instance, a leader is open to suggestions and observations. Likewise, leaders demonstrate by example how to grow personally and professionally and how to recover and learn from mistakes. “Sometimes the fight is your friend, revealing the best in you,” Culp explained, adding that a struggle forces people to innovate, progress and use creativity to solve problems. “Sometimes adversity is exactly what you need to move forward.” 

Under good leadership, Culp said, employees are allowed to take ownership of their projects. When mistakes are made, a leader points out where the employee showed heart and passion in the project as well as belief in the mission, even though it didn’t go as planned. The employee usually then adopts the attitude of a hero, one who makes a difference. The positive aspects of any situation can be mined for growth and development.

In turbulent times, Culp advised remembering the purpose of what you are trying to accomplish in your organization to help “hold you in place. Stay anchored to your meaningful mission.” 

By encouraging team members to fully participate in idea-sharing, a leader also avoids burnout, Culp noted. “Viewing yourself as the only problem solver” is a problem. Instead, by safeguarding space for movement in the workplace, the organizational leader can build a hero culture. 

“Holding space for what a person could be is the job of every leader,” Culp said. “Leaders are dealers in hope.”