Robert Iger courtesy of the Walt Disney Company
The Walt Disney Company (aka Disney) is the world’s largest entertainment conglomerate.
It generated a staggering US$69.570 billion in revenue in 2019.Employing some 223,000 employees (September 2019), Disney owns the world’s top entertainment brands—Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, National Geographic.
With a sprawling global presence, Disney runs world-class theme parks, owns multiple media channels, and offers innumerable licensed merchandise through its shops and distribution partners.
Keen to learn how such a behemoth was managed, I recently listened to the audio book The Ride of a Lifetime—Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger. Executive Chairman and CEO of Disney, 69-year-old Bob Iger took the helm of Disney from 2005 to 2020.
What I learned blew me away.
Part autobiography, part business book, The Ride of a Lifetime revealed the internal machinations that went into running and succeeding in the cut-throat entertainment business.
The book provided a fascinating glimpse into how Mr Iger handled the many challenges which came his way. It also showcased his leadership values—honesty, decency, integrity, resourcefulness, courage, empathy, people-orientation and pure grit—and demonstrated how it helped him to become businessperson of the year, and “Hollywood’s nicest CEO.”
Let us look at some of these leadership lessons.
Own Up to Your Responsibilities
Bob Iger has never been one to shirk away from responsibility.
From his time as a junior leader in ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation) Sports, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Disney, to his final ascent as Disney’s head honcho, Iger faced difficult situations upfront and centre.
This leadership trait was evident when he withstood the withering glare of the media as the former COO of Disney back when Michael Eisner, the prior CEO, came under attack from Board Members led by Roy Disney—Walt Disney’s disenfranchised nephew.
Be Persistent and Gritty
When Disney bought over Capital City—ABC, Bob Iger thought that he had the opportunity to be the second-in-command after Michael Eisner back when the latter was Disney’s CEO. Back then Iger was the President of Capital City-ABC and a shoo-in for the post.
However, Eisner had other ideas and brought in an intermediary—Michael Ovitz—to be his COO, with Bob reporting to him. When Eisner was ousted by the Board and a global headhunt for the next CEO took place, Iger had to undergo grueling rounds of interrogation-styled interviews by Board Members and headhunters ad nauseum.
It took Iger many years of diligence and sheer grit to ascent to the COO—and eventually Executive Chairman and CEO roles—in The Walt Disney company.
Value Ability over Experience
Focusing a large part of his career on identifying, nurturing and grooming the right talents, Bob Iger took over from Eisner as the CEO when Disney Animation was stuck in a rut. It’s films were unexciting and barely registered a blip in the box office.
Comparatively speaking, Pixar (led by CEO Steve Jobs) had exciting films coming up like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and other popular franchises.
After searching for the right talents to rejuvenate Disney Animation, Iger decided that he needed the talented co-founders of Pixar—John Lasseter and Edwin Catmull—to re-ignite the creative spark in Disney. This led him to taking contrarian actions such as buying over Pixar from Steve Jobs.
Iger’s attention to staff empowerment was also seen in how he dismantled the powerful Strategic Planning Department created by predecessor Michael Eisner. This move empowered Disney’s business leaders to make more investment decisions at their end.
Unlike Eisner who was legendary for his micro-managing ways, Iger preferred to let his staff take centre-stage.
Take the Right Risks
From acquiring Pixar followed by Marvel and then Lucasfilm and finally 20th Century Fox, Bob Iger is a savvy deal maker.
However, all of these moves didn’t come with their own set of risks. Time and time again, he had to present detailed workings of why these multi-billion dollar acquisitions (Disney acquired Fox for US$71.3 billion) worked in Disney’s favour.
Fortunately, these calculated risks in growing the Disney empire have worked in its favour—all of these acquisitions have become win-win opportunities for the parties concerned.
Lead from Courage—Not Fear
Throughout his tenure as CEO, Iger had to juggle multiple difficult tasks.
In one section of the book, he highlighted how his former mentor Michael Eisner became paranoid and negative about how entertainment was evolving digitally. Eisner preferred to stick then to what he was comfortable with.
Unlike Eisner, however, Iger felt that he needed to be brave as the CEO and take on hard decisions. This led him to embrace new partners and channels that stretched Disney’s territory.
Be Magnanimous—Seek to Understand First
Time and time again, Iger bore assaults on his leadership style. As the former protege of Michael Eisner, he was somewhat tainted when Eisner was forced to leave.
However, he never took it to heart and did not let his ego get the better of him.
Iger’s uncanny ability to turn adversaries into friends helped him to overcome thorny issues.
It helped him to worm his way into Steve Jobs heart (and become close friends with him all the way till the latter’s death). It helped him to remove Roy Disney from the Disney board in a respectful and dignified manner. It helped him to win over hard-nuts like George Lucas (Lucasfilm), and Ike Perlmutter (Marvel’s Chairman and CEO), allowing Disney to acquire both the Star Wars and Marvel franchises.
Most admirably, Bob Iger treated his former boss and mentor Michael Eisner with deference and regard, and refrained from talking bad about him.
Innovate or Die (Aka Disrupt Thyself)
“You can’t allow tradition to get in the way of innovation.”
Throughout the book, innovation has been a consistent theme. For instance, when David Lynch was keen to launch Twin Peaks for ABC Television, Bob Iger supported him in that innovative programming format even though it had risks.
Similarly, Iger was willing to disrupt Disney’s own profitable programmes on network television by putting more of its emphasis on its own video-on-demand streaming series Disney+. Some of the exclusive content here include the highly vaunted Star Wars series The Mandalorian.
To Iger, innovation means changing everything, not just the way you make or deliver a product. It impacts your employees and organisational culture.
Pursue Integrity at All Costs
Popular with employees throughout the entire organisation, Bob Iger is known to be a leader who values honesty, decency and integrity.
During the #MeToo movement in Hollywood, several top leaders in Disney were implicated. They include animation head John Lasseter of Disney Studios, who had to be asked to leave after he was guilty of sexual harassment charges. Iger also prompted the cancellation of Roseanne Barr’s show after she posted a series of racist tweets.
In describing how he fires employees with integrity, Iger shared the following pointers:
- Do it in person. Not by email, phone, or text message.
- Look the person in the eye.
- Make it clear that it is from you to him or her
- Avoid small talk. Keep the conversation direct and straight.
- Explain clearly and concisely what wasn’t working, and why you don’t think it is going to change.
- Emphasize that it is a tough decision to make, and that you understand how hard it is for them.
- Be honest and do not fudge.
Calm, Disciplined, Ego-Free Leadership
As somebody who worked his way from humble obscurity to celebrity status during his time at Disney, Iger remained calm and steadfast throughout his tenure.
He steered the Disney ship through very choppy waters after the ousting of Eisner. He also managed to deftly maneuver the entertainment giant to safety when it’s animation department (the soul of the brand) faced challenges from Pixar.
As a calm and composed figure-head, Iger did not let his pride or ego get in the way. He embraced what Good to Great’s Jim Collins term as Level 5 Leadership:
“… leaders who embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are focused on producing sustained results while displaying a workmanlike diligence – more plow horse than show horse.”
Bob Iger’s 3 Strategic Priorities for Disney
Beyond the above pointers, what’s perhaps most memorable in the book was Robert Iger’s three strategic priorities for The Walt Disney Company.
He issued these imperatives when he was asked what he would do as the CEO of Disney—should he get the job (which he eventually did). These strategies priorities were focused on creating high-quality content, embracing technology, and going global.
Quoting from the book:
- We needed to devote most of our time and capital to the creation of high-quality branded content. In an age when more and more “content” was being created and distributed, we needed to bet on the fact that quality will matter more and more.
- We needed to embrace technology to the fullest extent, first by using it to enable the creation of higher quality products, and then to reach more consumers in more modern, more relevant ways. From the earliest Disney years under Walt, technology was always viewed as a powerful storytelling tool; now it was time to double down on our commitment to doing the same thing.
- We needed to become a truly global company. We were broad with our reach, doing business in numerous markets around the world, but we needed to better penetrate certain markets, particularly the world’s most populous countries, like China and India. To continue to create the same things for the same loyal customers was stagnation.
Robert Iger’s 10 Principles of Leadership
To summarize once again, here are Bob Iger’s 10 principles of leadership, exemplified by how he led the gargantuan Disney family from victory to victory.
A leader needs to look at the glass as being half-full, not half-empty. You can only trigger pragmatic enthusiasm in what can be achieved.
People are not motivated nor energized by pessimists.
Courage is the foundation of taking risks. Risk-taking is essential in building an innovative and creative company.
True innovation will only happen when people have the courage to take risks. If they are afraid of failure, creativity will not happen.
Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year. – Dan Burke
As Iger’s mentor have told him, do not spend time on the small stuff. Instead, allocate your time, energy and resources to the tasks and projects that are of the highest importance and value.
Leaders have to make difficult decisions. However, having to do so doesn’t mean that they should take their own sweet time doing so.
Good leaders should encourage a diversity of opinions and encourage different viewpoints. However, decisions ultimately need to be made in a timely fashion.
Chronic indecision is not just counter-productive—it can be deeply corrosive to team morale.
By possessing a deep and abiding curiosity, a leader can discover new talents, places and ideas. You can also generate a greater awareness and understanding of your marketplace and it’s unique dynamics.
The path to innovation always begins with curiosity.
Ensure the fair and decent treatment of your people, and display empathy when you do so.
Be forgiving of honest mistakes. We all make them, and often these failures could help us to learn important lessons.
Judging people too harshly generates a culture of fear and anxiety, which is negative and destructive.
As Stephen Covey have said, “Seek ye first to understand, and then to be understood.”
Being thoughtful means trying to understand what others are likely to think and feel when decisions are made.
To be thoughtful, you should seek as much as knowledge as needed, and take your time to develop an informed opinion.
Do lie or fake anything. Be who you are. Be genuine, honest and truthful.
Authenticity will help you to cultivate respect and trust in your organisation.
#9 The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection
Refuse to accept mediocrity. Do not make excuses for something being “good enough.”
If you believe that you can make something better, put in the effort to sharpen and refine it.
Focus on turning your good into great.
In business, nothing is more important than the integrity of your company’s people and your products and services.
Set high ethical standards in all things big and small. The way you do anything is the way you do everything.
“True integrity―a sense of knowing who you are and being guided by your own clear sense of right and wrong―is a kind of secret leadership weapon. If you trust your own instincts and treat people with respect, the company will come to represent the values you live by.”
Conclusion—A Truly Magical Ride
A lifelong fan of Disney, I’ve always been enamoured by their concepts of imagineering as well as their evergreen principles of service and cultural excellence. I’m also a big fan of Pixar’s movies, and how they’ve woven creativity and innovation into every facet of their organisation.
Robert Iger’s book The Ride Of A Lifetime provides the perfect complement to my knowledge of Disney’s leadership and management lore. Beyond the leadership principles that I’ve summarised for you here, the book contains lots of enchanting stories chronicling Iger’s journey, and his encounters with many larger-than-life characters along the way.
Get a copy and read it. I promise you that you’ll enjoy the ride of your life!