Creative Leadership: Walt Disney

Walt Disney the school boy was not a good student.  He would just as soon doodle and draw cartoons in class as learn something.  But, like most leaders, he was a big reader and a hard worker; holding down several odd jobs at once while still young.  His earliest dream was to become a cartoonist.  He sent dozens of submissions to publishers only to receive rejection after rejection. 

                While still in his teens he formed a small company that produced cartoons.  He hired some cartoonists to execute on his many good ideas.  The little firm prospered for a while and then floundered.  He tried again and lost again.  But along the way he was gaining experience and beginning to surround himself with the type of capable people who would share his vision and help bring his ideas into American folklore.

                At one point in his early, lonely, broke years, Disney was offered a secure job at a jelly factory.  To the disbelief of his family, Disney refused.  He wasn’t interested in a secure job.  He had a vision for being involved in the entertainment industry and he knew his talents pointed him in that direction.  With the drive and determination common to all great leaders, Disney refused to sell his dreams short for the lure of security.

                Walt Disney dreamed continually about making it in the entertainment industry.  Finally he came to realize that the only way he could do it would be through cartoons.  In his relentless efforts to achieve this, Walt Disney learned a lesson every leader must learn; how to be tough.  In the words of biographer Bob Thomas, “It wasn’t enough to be an original and creative artist, Disney learned; survival in the film business required a jungle toughness.”

                Disney was also no great administrator, but he had a knack for surrounding himself with talent.  For one, his brother Roy proved an invaluable partner, financial wizard, and loyal supporter throughout Walt’s career.  Ub Iwerks was perhaps the nation’s top cartoon talent, and Walt teamed up with Iwerks to create Disney’s most timeless character, Mickey Mouse.  Most of all, Walt Disney had that key leadership ingredient of being able to get others caught up in his visions.  He would enthuse about this idea or that until a whole room of artists were infected with his picture of what could be.  Then Disney would allow their individual creative efforts to flourish toward the completion of his vision.  Bob Thomas said, “Walt was developing one of his most valuable traits: the ability to recognize a man’s creative potential and force him to achieve it.”

                Walt Disney was also an extremely hard worker.  He was often the first in the office and the last to leave.  As a matter of fact, his late night tours of his artists’ desks became legendary, and artists would often leave their most prized unfinished work out at the end of the day in hopes that Disney would see them and make comment.  More often than not, he did.  The secret of Disney’s hard work was his passion.  He would get onto an idea or vision for something and pour himself into with everything he had.  Many, many times throughout his storied (no pun intended) career, Disney would pay no attention to finances or the monetary risks of a project.  He was committed to making real the vision he carried in his mind’s eye and no price was too big or risky to bring it about.  It was this boldness, this passion, this contagious enthusiasm that was the source of his ability to inspire so many talented people in his organization.  Walt Disney once said, “I happen to be an inquisitive guy, and when I see things I don’t like, I start thinking, why do they have to be like this and how can I improve them?”

                In 1931 Walt Disney suffered a nervous breakdown.  He had been repeatedly double-crossed in a cut-throat industry.  He had lost many talented artists to competing studios.  He had been continually wracked by financial problems.  His ideas had been stolen by cheap imitators, and, just like any leader, he had his skeptics.  Bob Thomas wrote, “Many worries and the stress of leading a crew of volatile, talented artists through uncharted territory began to wear on Walt.”  And in a statement that clearly demonstrates Disney’s inability to rest on his achievements, Thomas wrote, “He had been pushing himself and his animators hard, seeking greater quality in the cartoons instead of coasting on his already substantial reputation.”  But Disney’s eternal optimism soon revived him and he was as driven as ever to make his dreams come true.  Walt Disney, said those that were close to him, seemed to have a strong sense of his mortality.  This weighed on him heavily and drove him in a race against time to accomplish all the work he wanted to do.

                In all, Disney’s career spanned almost the entire entertainment industry.  His name became synonymous with quality family entertainment.  He was a pioneer in animated short films, then the first to add sound to a short animation.  He was the first to produce animation in color, and again the first to produce a full-length animation film. He progressed to live-action movies, nature films, and pioneered children’s programming on television.   And as a crescendo to an already staggering list of achievements, he pioneered the world of outdoor entertainment by creating Disneyland and launching Disney World before his death. 

In the late 1960’s Disney was invited to the White House by President Lyndon Johnson and awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.  The citations contained the words, “Artist, impresario, in the course of entertaining an age, Walt Disney has created an American folklore.”  What the citation could have just as easily said was that Walt Disney was a leader.  Disney’s leadership ability was the engine behind his success.  He was a man driven by his dreams and his vision for how things should be.  He could not accept the status quo and felt called to change things for the better.  He worked very hard throughout his life, not even slowing down when his success and fame eclipsed him.  Disney was optimistic and perseverant, and he knew how to spread his enthusiasm to others of higher talent in specific areas.  Risk taking was natural to him, to the point where he didn’t even worry about the risk because he could “see” the vision so strongly he just knew he could get there.  At several points during his life he said no to the temptations of complacency or security, always pushing forward for the next big dream.  He would master one form of entertainment and then move onward to the next. 

From a young man learning to lead a small group of intractable artists, to an elder scion of industry leading millions through a magical world of make-believe, Walt Disney was an excellent picture of leadership.   Perhaps his brother Roy said it best, “My brother Walt and I first went into business together almost a half century ago. And he was really, in my opinion, truly a genius – creative, with great determination, singleness of purpose and drive; and through his entire life he was never pushed off his course or diverted to other things.”

Today, the name Disney connotes many things.  For most, it is a place where they dream of taking that special family vacation someday before the kids grow up.  For many, it is cartoon characters and Mickey Mouse and family movies.  But for everyone, the name is familiar.  Disney’s world of creations continues to grow and prosper to incredible proportions long after the death of the man who envisioned it all.  The story of Walt Disney should be an inspiration to anyone who cherishes the hope that one person can make a difference.  Because Disney and its parks, characters, cruise lines, television network, and brand images are an everyday part of our lexicon, most people don’t stop to think that the Disney empire was once non-existent, not so long ago.  What is common everyday reality for us was once a dream in one man’s mind.  Success on such a staggering scale should make each of us stop and think about what special gifts we have, what dreams we harbor, and what contributions we can make.  Driven by those visions, we unlock our potential with the keys of leadership, first leading ourselves away from complacency and security and toward our dreams, then leading others by contagion in the same direction.  Over time, the ripple effect of our leadership, like that of Walt Disney, can be immeasurable.

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