Frank Oz Reveals Jim Henson's Creative and Inspiring Leadership Secrets
A new film shares how Henson motivated the team behind the world-famous Muppets.
Kermit. Miss Piggy. Big Bird. Elmo. These iconic characters have entertained and inspired for decades. But while you know their movies and songs, you might not realize how they came to be and the creative culture that made them possible.
A new documentary, Muppet Guys Talking, sheds some light on the process, bringing five original performers together for the first time. The film, released exclusively online, shares insights into how Jim Henson and his team created the trust and freedom needed to make groundbreaking shows like The Muppets Show and Sesame Street possible. Entrepreneur.com spoke with Frank Oz and producer Victoria Labalme about the strategies the performers used every day, how Jim Henson shaped them and what all of us can take from those lessons.
Find the vulnerabilities.
As the film reveals, each performer crafted special backstories for their characters -- details that no one else would ever necessarily know, but ones that helped the performers make them real. Fozzie Bear, for instance, was imagined as the only Muppet without a key to the theater.
Oz says he defined Miss Piggy by her vulnerability and her pain. Keeping that focus helped anchor the character and give her depth, which in turn boosted the comedy. “When I ad lib, I ad lib from a deep place of knowledge,” Oz says.
Seeking out those vulnerabilities and crafting those backstories can help you better understand any project -- and even any customer, says Labalme, who is also a leadership and communication expert. “We tend to cookie cutter people and not understand the full spectrum.”
Don’t lose sight of your purpose.
Jim Henson was focused on two things, Oz says: making compelling entertainment and doing good for the world. These two ideas helped create something truly different and unique. Keeping intent front and center isn’t just essential for a director putting together a scene, it’s vital to anyone looking to create something meaningful and impactful. “If you focus on what you want to create rather than what the competition is doing," Labalme adds, "you're going to break new boundaries.”
(from left) Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson and Bill Barretta in Muppet Guys Talking.
To build trust, build generosity first.
Oz believes that everyone is creative -- but controlling environments can make people doubt themselves and hold them back. Oz, whose decades-long work with Henson started at 19, understands the benefits of a trusting environment that rewards risk. “We could make as many mistakes as we wanted to,” Oz says. “And if we didn't have that we could not have created what Jim and all of us created.”
Key to that trust was a sense of generosity, he says. Henson, Oz explains, enjoyed celebrating birthdays and giving for the joy of giving. This generosity can be contagious, he says, and echoed through the team. “If I had [worked for] another person who was a screamer -- and there are many in this business -- I might be screaming now.”
Be kind -- and ask questions.
Reactions can be powerful, Oz says. He reminds leaders to be kind, even when it’s not easy. “Kindness is a massive weapon. [People] aren’t used to that.”
For leaders, this can mean resisting the urge to just say "no" to a suggestion and to ask questions about it instead. Labalme suggests that leaders ask, "What’s the idea behind that idea?" to learn more about the concept and validate the person suggesting it. Don’t just dismiss it, she explains. Say, "Tell us more."
Oz agrees, recalling how in his early director days he might have battled with an argumentative actor on set but realized how that stood in the way of nurturing someone’s best work. Soon he’d learn to take a moment and connect with the person.
“Instead of shouting, I’d say, ‘Hey what's going on,’" Oz says. "I’d put my arm around them and say, ‘Tell me what's really going on here. I know you're upset at me.’” Just asking those simple questions and taking that new direction is transformative, he adds. “That changes people.”