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Leadership Lessons from Disney

This fall, my fifth-grade son Oliver asked me: “Dad, can you wait for November 12th?” At first, I was unsure where he was going with this, but I quickly learned November 12th was the date that Disney planned to launch its new streaming service, Disney+. Over the past year or two, Oliver has developed into a Disney super-fan. In fact, he chose Walt Disney as his subject to study and present for Fourth-Grade Biography Day. The company’s history, Walt’s story, parks, movies, shorts—there are so many pieces of Disney trivia in his brain, he could be considered a mini Disney historian.
So the day that Disney+ became available, there was a celebration in our house. The debut—which featured the Disney logo and the logos of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucas Films appearing on the screen—left me a bit intrigued. Specifically, I wanted to learn more about:
  • Walt Disney’s leadership—both the founder and the company’s current leaders
  • How the company developed the idea to open the previously heavily guarded vaults of Disney’s content and make it available via a streaming service
  • The decision to list their brand logo alongside those of the other creative companies that Disney purchased.
Around the time of the Disney+ launch, Disney CEO Bob Iger released a memoir titled The Ride of A Lifetime. As a leader and teacher of leadership, I read many books on the topic. Often these are historical biographies or business books. Many parts of Iger’s story and his approach to leadership resonated deeply with me. He stepped into the lead role at Disney when the blue-chip company was on the ropes: the board had grown dysfunctional; their movies had lost their pizazz; and the company lacked a coherent vision for the future. Iger took the reins with a simple three-step vision. Disney would:
  • Focus on making high-quality content
  • Embrace technology at all levels of the business
  • Grow globally.
Under Iger’s leadership, the company has moved forward in these three areas and many others. During his tenure, Disney has acquired Pixar, Marvel, Lucas Films, and, most recently, 20th Century Fox. These acquisitions have been transformative for the company as they have created new opportunities for collaboration and synergy. A cynic might say, “Why praise a businessman who buys other companies? Isn’t that like being a corporate raider?” Iger’s approach was the opposite of a hostile takeover.

By creating trusting and personal relationships with Steve Jobs, George Lucas, and others, Iger was able to secure deals that benefited all parties. These acquisitions strengthened Disney, profited the founders of companies they purchased, and allowed the brands and cultures of these companies to continue to live on as entities under the Disney umbrella. Talk about a win-win!

What impressed me most about his book and story is Iger’s humility. He is the chief of one of the largest corporations in the world and oversees some of our most iconic brands, yet he is humble and knows that he is fortunate to enjoy such success. Iger also recognizes that his success is due to the hard work and support of the many “cast members” who are devoted to the Disney Company’s work.
A few bits of Bob Iger's wisdom I’d like to share: (pages 225-233)
  • Now more than ever; innovate or die. There can be no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new.
  • 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.
  • Don’t be in the business of playing it safe. Be in the business of creating possibilities for greatness.
  • Optimism emerges from faith in yourself and in the people who work for you. It’s not about saying things are good when they’re not, and it’s not about conveying some blind faith that “things will work out.” It’s about believing in your and others’ abilities.
I’m not in the entertainment industry like Bob Iger, nor is Sanford School the Disney Corporation. However, his story and approach inspire me. Like Disney, at Sanford, we:
  • Are in the people business. Sanford must have the most talented team of teachers and coaches working with our students. Our parents are our partners in this important work. Sanford alumni and alumni parents continue to play a critical role in not only remembering our past, but in helping to shape our school’s future. This people business of ours binds all of these groups together and creates a strong, unified school community.
  • Look for unique opportunities. In a crowded independent school market where the number of non-tuition based schools grows each year, Sanford must be entrepreneurial in how we remain open to possible ways to expand our value for families and the greater community.
  • Continue to learn, grow, and change. We are proud of our past. Sanford’s traditions and legacy are imprinted on our school’s DNA. While the heart of the Sanford experience and mission will never change, it is imperative that we continue to consider future opportunities that Sanford might explore in the coming years.
Bob Iger’s creativity, honesty, integrity, bravery, and humility are all parts of the kit I try to bring to work each day. And just like Bob Iger continues to lead Disney’s success, I hope to continue building on Sanford’s success for many years to come. Walt Disney famously said that Disneyland will never be complete, it will always be growing, changing, and improving—I am proud to say the same is true at Sanford.

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