When it comes to studio heads, there are suits, and then there’s John Lasseter, for whom the Hawaiian shirts say it all: Yes, his job entails juggling big-picture business tasks with his duties as a creative artist, which involves finding a seemingly impossible balance between right- and left-brain skills, but as the man himself explains, “The creative wins out every time.”

It’s been more than a quarter century since Lasseter ankled his post-CalArts stint at Disney and took up shop at what was then considered the Graphics Group of Lucasfilm. (Lasseter joined in 1984; the company became Pixar two years later, after Steve Jobs acquired Lucas’ CG division for $10 million.) In that time, Lasseter rose through the ranks from lowly “interface designer,” responsible for directing computer-animated Listerine and LifeSavers commercials, to Oscar-winning co-head of the multibillion-dollar Disney/Pixar animation empire, a responsibility he shares with Ed Catmull, the computer graphics visionary who originally brought him aboard.

“I don’t really think of myself as a businessman at all. That’s why I have the ‘chief creative officer’ role,” Lasseter explains. “Pixar is a filmmaker-led studio, not an executive-led studio. It’s not about the box office; it’s about people so deeply loving the movie and the characters. For me, that’s smart business. It means people will want to watch the movies again and again. That’s what generates the desire to visit a theme-park attraction. That’s where the continued sales of consumer products come from — you don’t keep selling the products for a movie no one likes years later. It’s really what Walt Disney founded, and it’s so vitally important for the success of a company as a whole.”

Disney detractors may criticize the degree to which merchandising and other ancillary streams support the company’s bottom line, but that doesn’t faze Lasseter. “It all started with a mouse,” quips Lasseter, who believes the animation and characters are the core of Disney’s business, while the other elements are healthy extensions of that creative endeavor.

Take “Cars 2,” the eighth Pixar feature to earn more than half a billion dollars worldwide. Somehow, among all his other duties, Lasseter found time to direct the film himself. When he sees a child holding a Buzz Lightyear toy or wearing a Lightning McQueen T-shirt, he knows audiences are connecting with the characters so strongly that they want to be part of their world.

“We are not a non-profit organization,” says Lasseter, who understands his role in the film industry. Still, he insists, “Everybody’s here because something moved them early in their life. We love going to the movies and being blown away. I want to fuel that passion inside of everybody. I tell them, ‘You are the audience you’re making things for.’ I think of the audience every day and in every meeting.”

Make it great

Nearly all of the principles that govern Lasseter’s management style can be explained by one of two things. First, there is the wisdom instilled by working closely with mentors like Jobs and Catmull at Pixar. And second, there is the direct experience gained from having suffered under bad bosses, which translates to a determination not to repeat their mistakes.

“A good part of my leadership skills is crafted from learning from experiences early in my career that were not positive experiences. For me, it was learning what not to do when you are put in that position,” Lasseter candidly admits.

“Back when I first started working at Disney — this was 1979 — only a handful of the greats were still animating, and they became our mentors,” he says. “The ones who were creatively in charge, the producers and directors, were so scared of all this young talent coming in, they kept us under their thumb. We just wanted to make filmmaking better.”

While the golden age of Disney animation was well on the wane, Lasseter had seen “Star Wars” during his sophomore year at CalArts, and the experience had energized him about the medium’s potential.

“The way this movie entertained me, I was shaking at the end of it. We wanted to take animation to that place,” he says. “We were so passionate back then that we were labeled as troublemakers. I remember once, I was just trying to give notes on the project I was working on, and I was told, ‘We don’t want to hear your ideas. Just do what you’re told, and if you’re not interested in that, there’s a line of people outside the studio that would be ready to take your place.’ How many words is that? But it made me not care about the movie or the studio. I walked away from that thinking, ‘If ever I’m in charge, I’m never going to say that to a young, energetic, passionate person.’ ”

Quality control

Rather than discouraging input from underlings, Lasseter champions just the opposite approach at Pixar. From Jobs, who resisted focus testing before launching Apple products, he adopted the mantra, “Quality is the best business plan.”

Still, because Lasseter views feedback as an essential part of the creative process, Pixar features are shown internally every three or four months, with employees from all corners of the studio invited to provide fresh eyes and give notes, allowing the filmmakers to evaluate how the story’s developing.

“There’s no hierarchy of notes,” Lasseter says. “My notes aren’t any more important than an animator’s notes or a receptionist’s notes. As a director, it’s very difficult to get tons and tons of criticism on what you’re working on, but what’s nice is that you know everyone in the room is there to make the movie the best than it can be.”

Pixar’s feedback strategy works in part because of a principle baked into the studio’s design. “Ed Catmull always says he tries to hire people he thinks are smarter than himself, which is so different from what I was experiencing in Hollywood,” Lasseter explains. “It’s simple: Hire great people, and let them shine.”

As Lasseter’s responsibilies have grown over the years, he’s had to delegate more and more to his colleagues. By hiring talented artists and empowering them to do work of which they can take personal ownership, Lasseter has created a system in which every member of the team has reason to have pride in the result.

Another defining moment came from an encounter Lasseter had with a family who beamed as they told him their grandmother had served as a cel painter on Disney’s first animated feature. “She had one of the lowliest jobs on ‘Snow White,’ but the pride will live with her grandkids long after she’s gone,” Lasseter recalls. “That’s the way I want everybody to feel, not just those who worked at Pixar, but their entire families — to be deeply, creatively satisfied.”

Variety’s Creative Leadership Award: John Lasseter
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