This leader was celebrated by millions as an innovative flm producer, animator, director, voice actor, screenwriter, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. In 1966, the year before he died, it was estimated that 240 million people watched a movie by this leader. A weekly audience of 100 million watched his television shows, 80 million read books by him, 50 million listened to his records, 80 million purchased merchandise with his trademarks, 80 million saw an educational film by him, and nearly 7 million visited a theme park he created. During his lifetime, this Innovative Leader’s infuence was unparalleled. At the time, he was known to more people in the world than any other human being. Children from all over the world have been touched by his innovations.
Great leadership is often measured by a person’s infuence during the course of their entire life. And this leader is an example of such leadership. This leader utilized his talent for innovation to express himself through his iconic inventions. If we fast forward half a century, to see the fruit of his labor long after his death, one could easily argue that this Innovative Leader’s legacy would catapult him to the status of being a leadership phenomenon.
In the 21st century, the company he founded has become the largest media and entertainment corporation in the world. It is best-known for its motion pictures and theme parks worldwide, but his empire is far more expansive, with its hand in sports entertainment (owner of ESPN), news and television (owner of ABC), the hospitality industry (owner of cruise lines, restaurants, and resorts worldwide), and merchandising (his name extends to apparel, toys, home décor, books and magazines, to interactive games, foods and beverages, stationery, electronics and fine art). In 2014, the company he started hit an all-time high of generating revenues of 48.8 billion.
One might normally expect that in order to build such a dominating media corporation, that such a leader would have had to have been a charismatic wheeling and dealing enterprising entrepreneur, but one would be wrong. Walt Disney, was not a good businessman, in the traditional sense—in fact, he hated to deal with money matters altogether. He, rather, was a visionary, always looking to the future, and always executing on his ideas by inventing new ways of doing things, creating products of high quality and innovating in ways that had never been done before.
He inspired his employees to go beyond what they could initially think they could do, to do better, to innovate. He created a culture of collaboration where the goal was to imagineer an idea into reality. Innovation is an art form, and it begins with an Innovative Leader who develops others to also become Innovative Leaders. And this is what Walt did in his lifetime of leadership. Walt Disney’s life and vision has provided us with a design for what to do when creating, building, growing, or improving a corporation. Walt Disney was an Innovative Leader, and there are some valuable leadership lessons we can learn from him.
Some leaders operate on the “good enough” principle. They are far more concerned with being the first to get there, than to make sure that they present their absolute best when they arrive. When Walt introduced a product to the market, it was marked with excellence. For Disney, quality meant that many would be attracted, and that quality would spread quickly like a wildfire. No matter what it cost or what it took, Disney made it a habit to bet it all, to strive for the best. In his early years, he mortgaged everything he owned including his personal finances to pursue his entrepreneurial quests. He knew that quality had a price, and he was willing to pay for it. Disney once said, “When we consider a project, we really study it—not just the surface idea, but everything about it. And when we go into that new project, we believe in it all the way. We have confidence in our ability to do it right. And we work hard to do the best possible job.” Disney believed that quality was what prevailed, he said, “I have blind faith in the policy that quality, tempered with good judgment and showmanship, will win against all odds.”
An early example of his focus on quality is the story of creating one of the first cartoons with sound. Walt created “Steamboat Willie” (1928), when sound synchronization was not yet the norm. He worked with musicians, recording studios, and voice actors with the intent to produce the best quality picture he could possibly make. Unsparingly, he worked to the point of exhaustion. Dissatisfied, frustrated, out of money, Walt sent telegrams back to his brother, Roy, who was in charge of financing, about the failed attempts on the recordings. His telegram stated, “Get as large a loan as possible.” A week later another wire stated, “Don’t think thirty five hundred enough. Try for more. Our future depends on first picture. Therefore, am not sparing expense to make it good.” He further implored, “Slap as big a mortgage on everything we got and let’s go after this thing in the right manner.”
After numerous attempts and much money wasted, Walt finally cracked the problem which others in the industry had deemed as unsolvable. He reached his objective to synchronize sound and motion picture. Rather than succumbing to compromise, Walt pushed through to create a smashing success in Steamboat Willie, which vaulted him into the limelight and enabled him to continue his building of Walt Disney Studios. Disney forever became associated with the best quality animation. His contemporaries found it very difficult to compete with him, for he set a new standard which was unmatchable. What drove this leader was his devotion to set a standard of excellence which had never been seen before.
The saying, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,” is counsel that is given and heeded by many leaders. Walt, however, would not be one of them. He was a leader who persistently saw things through. If he had the vision for it, there was no stopping him. Even against all odds, he would stay the course to reach his goal. Whatever Walt set his mind to, he pursued no matter how long it would take or how much it would cost. A colleague of Walt once remarked, “He cared enough to do something absolutely perfect and he would do it over and over again until he got it right.”
Whether he needed to wait it out, or he needed to quickly shift gears and adapt to a situation, Walt found a way to step up to the plate and deliver no matter what the obstacle. In attempting to create Alice’s Wonderland, at one point he became bankrupt, and had to cease production. Instead of cutting his losses, and moving on, he worked from a makeshift cartoon studio out of his uncle’s garage, until he had just enough to get a deal with a distributor. When he was down on his luck, he figured out a way to stick it through until luck came back around. His “stay with it” attitude allowed him to take a film which was on the near brink of utter failure and turn it into a smashing success.
When Walt was creating the full feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney originally estimated to his brother that it would cost $250,000 to complete this impossible project. Snow White eventually cost over $1.5 million, an astronomical sum in those days. Roy Disney ended up having to beg, steal, and hock the company to its eyeballs each time Walt needed more money to “finish the feature.” Starting with roughly 200 hundred employees in 1934, Disney Studios grew physically topsy-turvy, adding 800 more employees, by the end of the project. Some might call it being reckless, while others would look at it as being determined. Due to the constant tinkering of Walt to improve the film, his animators worked day and night for over four years to satisfy the exacting Walt. The result of his persistence was that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a huge triumph. People’s perception of what could be done in animation was changed forever. With the money it brought in, Walt Disney Studios was established as the premiere entertainment studio, not equaled by any other.
Most leaders rarely experience a shortage of great ideas. The fact is that there are far more wonderful ideas than there are actual inventions which make a difference. The way that Walt differed from other leaders is that no ideas were ever just wishful thinking. When Walt said, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” Many of us read that, and have warm feelings about how beautiful those words are. There is something romantic about the possibility of dreams. For Walt, the operative word in this statement is the word, “if”—“if” is operative because it kills the romance of the statement. When “if” is the operative word, it means that without “the courage to pursue,” that the opposite is true, that is, “None of our dreams can come true.” Reality is that most dreams only remain as wonderful thoughts, for there are no costs associated with having a dream. To have courage, however, requires taking a risk, and to pursue a dream requires time, energy, hard work, money, and sacrifice. Walt believed that dreams were meant to be pursued and turned into reality.
It is hard to pin down when Walt first thought of building Disneyland. In some sense, it has always been in his mind, from the earliest of days. Fifteen blocks from his childhood home was the Electric Park, where he frequently visited. All of his animations presented magical places where make-believe felt so real. The live steam railroad in his backyard influenced the frame for Disneyland. When he took his girls to Griffith Park where they would spend hours on the merry-go-around, Disney ranted that, “There’s nothing for the parents to do.” At one time, he had remarked to one of his friends, “One of these days I am going to build an amusement park—and it’s going to be clean.” From the time actual construction started, Disneyland opened exactly one year later. However, Disneyland was built as a concept in his mind for most of Walt’s life. It was to be the “Happiest Place on Earth”—it would be the mecca where all that Walt had ever dreamed and done would be realized.
Disneyland became a major platform through which his enterprise expanded into all kinds of other businesses. Walt started out in a niche arena of the entertainment industry as a cartoonist. By the end of his life, he laid the foundation for his enterprise to become the world’s largest media conglomerate, encompassing movies, television, and publishing. Disney’s reach extends even into merchandising—toys, clothing, candy, souvenirs, sporting goods, kitchenware, and just about every imaginable type of trinket display Disney’s characters. Walt’s reach expands into our everyday life, whether we are at home in front of the television, or we are a tourist on a family vacation. Walt’s aim was to entertain, and he has certainly achieved his objective through a series of result after result.
It is often said, that leaders are all about, “Getting things done.” They have a high need for closure, and therefore seek completion. In the case of the Innovative Leader, it would be more accurate to say that they are about, “Getting things going.” The projects they work on are always in a perpetual state of never being final. There is always room for improvement. For Walt, this was not just the way he approached his job. It was his way of seeing the world. If there was a problem he faced at the office, he didn’t just leave it there. It came home with him, and it never shut off even during his sleeping hours. Walt often tossed and turned in bed because he would be trying to solve the problems from the day. It was not uncommon for him to awaken early in the morning and leap out of bed saying to his wife, “I think I just licked it!” The solution came to him while sleeping on it. Walt lived at his studios, even when he wasn’t physically there, his mind always was.
Walt saw no specific boundaries between work and play. He didn’t have a separate compartment for work. His work was his hobby. His work was his great obsession, and this was what helped him to reinvent animation. The whole entertainment industry emulated his techniques and approaches because he was a pioneer. This was only possible because he set the minimum standard as perfection. Under Walt’s leadership, nothing fell short of excellence. When Walt described their process and attitude toward their work, he said, “Every foot of rough animation was projected on the screen for analysis, and every foot was drawn and redrawn until we could say, ‘This is the best we can do.’ We had become perfectionists, and as nothing is ever perfect in this business, we were continually dissatisfied.”
The commitment to continual improvement didn’t just occur with animation which could be more easily modified, it also occurred at Disneyland with more permanent fixtures which were not so easily modifiable. With each visit, he always sought to make it better, he once said, “Whenever I go on a ride, I’m always thinking of what’s wrong with the thing and how it can be improved.” When creating Disneyland, Walt said, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Innovators don’t become obsolete because they are always ahead of the people. For Walt, the central question to his animators of Disney Studios in the 1930’s or 1940’s and his imagineers of WED Enterprises in the 1950’s or 1960’s was, “How can we make it better?” Walt sought to invent what the world had yet to experience. And this meant that innovation was a never ending pursuit. After all, the moment a leader ceases to innovate is the moment they set themselves on path to become obsolete. The world simply moves on without them.
The most common way that teams are structured is that they are led by superstars. The leader is surrounded by their minions who are usually not as smart, talented, gifted, or charismatic as they are. The leader is perceived as the superior one, exalted on high. The team members are simply there to carry out orders. In this scenario, leaders are set apart from their team members, and designated with special status, and it is not uncommon for leaders to create distance from their team members in order to maintain this status.
Walt was on the opposite end of the spectrum from this kind of thinking. In most cases, he was not the most talented. In fact, when he saw those who were more talented than he, instead of feeling threatened, he was attracted. He would do everything in his power to recruit talent. Walt was collaborative by nature—surrounding himself with the most talented team he could possibly find. Walt knew his strengths and shortcomings very well. In some cases he learned the hard way through failure. After his first two failed attempts at running an enterprise, it was clear that he could not run the business. He was a creative genius, but he was uncoordinated when it came to the day to day logistics of running an operation. When the company went bankrupt, Walt relied on his brother, Roy Disney to handle all of the finances. Walt was a visionary, but he was not a businessman. Roy, on the other hand, was extremely savvy when it came to financial affairs. It was only together that the Disney enterprises could be built.
Walt collected and trained the best cartoonists in the country. At the depths of the Depression, even the most talented people decided that working for Disney at a smaller salary was better than getting higher pay at companies that didn’t care about the product. Disney had the reputation of being the best animation shop. They were one big happy family, always striving to produce quality work which they could be proud of. During the Depression, while others were scaling back, Walt recruited more animators, to produce Snow White. At that time, he recruited most of the group which came to be known as, the Nine Old Men, who were considered to be the best of the best. They became leading animators through merit and hard work in the Disney Studios. They would work for Disney in the coming decades, and eventually shoulder all the responsibility for Disney Studios animation features. Their success became the cornerstone by which all animation would be defined and measured against. Walt’s strategy on talent was simple. Bring the best and the brightest to the table, find ways to help them get even better, and provide opportunities to create the best work.