10 Things I Learned from Disney – #3: Leadership Matters…a Lot!

walt-and-roy-01How many companies today are run by caretakers? How many of the Fortune 500 are run by CEO’s who are really just thinly disguised accountants?

The Leader of a company determines the heart and soul of that company. If you run the company by your profit and loss statements, you’ll end up with a fiscally responsible corporation that will slowly screw itself into the ground. If you have a reckless leader, you’ll flame and burn in spectacular style. Somewhere in between the extremes is where you have to live

Walt Disney was not overly concerned by fiscal responsibility. That was Roy, his brother’s job. Walt drove the company by embracing risk. Roy lost his hair by trying to balance Walt’s enthusiasm.

Risk is the fuel that drives the future. And risk is risk. It can only be calculated up to a certain point. After that, you have to close your eyes and jump. Walt jumped again, and again, and again, each with spectacular style.

1923 – Walt moved to Hollywood from Kansas City with a short film called Alice’s Wonderland that he hoped would net him a distribution contract. The film was pretty much all Walt had. He managed to secure a contract and teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for 4 years. And just when he looked like he had a winner, in a new cartoon character called Oswald the Rabbit, the distributor stole both the rights and the animators, shutting Walt out.

1928 – After losing Oswald, Walt started from scratch with Mickey Mouse. But he only created two cartoons with the new character before deciding to risk it all with the first sound cartoon. The struggling studio dumped everything they had into the cartoon, Steamboat Willie. Luckily, Walt’s gamble paid off. Mickey was a hit.

1937 – Building on the success of Steamboat Willie, Disney turned out a series of profitable Mickey Mouse cartoons, and added the Silly Symphony series, netting himself a number of Academy Awards in the process for pushing the boundaries of animation technology and art. but Walt soon found a new dream worthy of risk – the first full length animated movie. It what was quickly becoming predictable behaviour for Walt, he risked all their profits from the animated shorts on Snow White. And, as before, it was a phenomenal success, becoming the highest grossing movie until Gone with the Wind bumped it from it’s perch.

In it’s following releases, Disney struggled with finding the right balance between budget and profitability. The war restricted access to foreign markets so profits relied on domestic audiences. Walt continued to push the envelope of what was possible with animation in Disney’s next two releases, Pinocchio and Fantasia. This came at a cost – a budget that meant these films didn’t break even until decades after their debut (thanks to eventual release on VHS and DVD). Walt continually tried to find the right balance between artistic accomplishment and profitability, eventually finding a happy middle ground with classics like Bambi, Cinderella and Mary Poppins (another technical and artistic milestone). It’s amazing to consider how quickly animation progressed, from the primitiveness of Steamboat Willie to the polished art of Show White in just 9 short years.

In the interim Walt also explored TV and live action features, finding significant success in both. Finally, it seemed, Disney had found the groove that led to sustained profitability. Almost any other leader would cling to this groove for dear life, building up the bank account and enjoying the rewards that come with success. Not Walt.

1955 – Walt got restless when he stayed in one place too long. he became bored with incremental improvement, no matter how profitable it proved to be. Walt thrived on risk and new, monumental challenges. And so, he looked for a new one. Walt was 54 years old and had been running Disney, in one form or another, for 35 years. By any measure you might want to apply, he was successful. And he risked all this, everything, on a new dream – an entertainment park. Disneyland represented Walt’s biggest roll of the dice yet, because he had everything to lose.

This restlessness and desire to push the limits epitomized the Disney company for the first 45 years of its history. Walt and the company were really one and the same. His leadership determined the soul of the company. When he died of lung cancer at the age of 66, he left a hole in the heart of Disney that took years to mend (and some might say Walt was never successfully replaced). Never let it be said that one person does not determine the direction of a huge corporation. Disney was testament to the fact that a single person’s vision and ideals can shape and guide a company for decades. This is not the job for a caretaker or bean counter. This is a job for someone who can grasp the impossible and shape the future.

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