Walt Disney's Leadership

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When my resume or author's blurb describes me as an internationally respected authority on Disney, it is not a phrase of puffery to try to establish some fraudulent credibility. It is, indeed, an actual fact.

Not only do I have readers worldwide who enjoy my various columns and books, but I write original material as an expert on the many worlds of Disney for a variety of countries, including, most frequently, Germany, Sweden, Japan and of course, the United Kingdom.

I can only think of less than a half-dozen Disney historians who do the same, including several friends who I greatly respect such as Jim Fanning and David Gerstein. The world of Disney history has been greatly enriched by their many amazing contributions over the years.

A Brazilian publisher recently purchased the rights to translate The Revised Vault of Walt into Portuguese and we are in negotiations about doing the same with the other Disney books I have written.

It has been fun communicating with translator Celina C. F. Cook, who is making every effort to make sure it is an accurate translation. She recently wrote to verify that "DAR" referred to The Daughters of the American Revolution. She is taking nothing for granted.

Even though I will never be able to read the book in Portuguese, I take comfort that the translator will represent what I wrote accurately.

I have an English translation on my bookshelves of a Russian biography of Walt Disney (The Life and Fairy Tales of Walt Disney by E. M. Arnoldi, published in 1968 by Leningrad Publishers), which is challenging to read because the translator translated proper names into English as they sounded in Russian so the spelling is way off and she did the same with the titles of Disney films, as well.

Fortunately, if you know a little Disney history, you can make a good guess that "Ivan Earl" actually refers to "Eyvind Earle" who did the amazing backgrounds for Sleeping Beauty. Unfortunately, there is also a "choppiness" to the sentences as if they were literally translated word-for-word with an open Russian to English phrasebook by the translator's side.

Please don't rush out to try to add this obscure book to your collection. More than 90 percent of the material appears in many other Disney books written in English. It is not filled with additional, new, astonishing insights into Walt or his works. I'll look at it again when I have time and if I find anything of interest, I will share it here.

I've also learned (from the days I was writing scripts for Tiny Toons comic books that were only printed in Spain, France, Germany and Italy) that when writing for different cultures where my work is to be translated to avoid puns, slang American expressions and such. That rule even applies when I write material for the United Kingdom.

Two great countries separated by the same language. Is it a truck or a lorry? Is it a flashlight or a torch? Is it an elevator or a lift? Is that person really a pill?

This year I was contacted by a magazine in the United Kingdom for a short article about Walt Disney as a leader.

Edge magazine is a prestigious slick periodical published by The Institute of Leadership & Management in London. One of their regular features is a column titled "Leaders Throughout History" where a leader is spotlighted in approximately 500 words and four aspects are addressed: who the person was, what his strengths as a leader were, what his weaknesses as a leader were, and what lessons can modern leaders learn from him today.

If I am a Disney historian, then why was this magazine contacting me about writing about Walt as a leader? Apparently, besides reading my current material, the person had also attended some of the business classes at the Disney Institute more than a decade ago.

I was a program designer, facilitator and trainer for a host of classes at the Disney Institute, and several of them were specifically business related. Along with facilitator Dennis Snow, who for more than a decade has been operating his own consulting firm, I developed a segment titled "Animation Leadership" that was frequently used by the Disney Institute for business groups.

In fact, one time Disney flew Snow and me up to New Jersey to do a special presentation of it for 2,000 employees of Toys R Us.

This program was designed to re-create the experience of working at the Disney Studios as an animator in the 1930s when Disney animation was at its prime. Through three team-building exercises the participants learn about Vision, Accountability and Involvement.

While Dennis drove home those principles, I guided the group through animation experiences peppered with anecdotal storytelling of Walt as a leader and demonstrated that those leadership aspects were as valid today as they were when Walt used them decades earlier dealing with his staff of new recruits.

In recent years, for colleges and business groups, I have developed another presentation titled "Walt's Leadership" that, using stories of Walt and his brother Roy, point out the different skill sets between a leader and a manager and why both are needed in a business. In addition, I point out the 10 aspects of great leadership that Walt possessed, why he used them, and how they can still be used today.

As with most of the things he did, Walt just had the right instinct. That's not to say he didn't have some rough edges that could have used some improvement, including personally complimenting someone on a good job rather than telling others and assuming it would get back to the right person.

The Disney historian element in these presentation comes in my making these points using anecdotal stories of Walt Disney. Walt was a great storyteller and, by telling a story about Walt, it often makes a stronger impact than just trotting out the bullet points that need to be learned.

I never point out that these key factors in Walt's success as a leader have not been used by The Disney Company for almost 30 years in its official leadership training. I have even seen Disney leaders, who have attempted to emulate Walt's leadership behavior, be undercut and reprimanded by their immediate superiors.

Van France, one of the founders of Disney University, was the last person to actively promote the common sense/common courtesy "servant leader" concept for Disney where a leader not only was given the responsibility, but also the authority to make decisions. A "servant leader" (unlike a "warrior leader," like a football coach or a military commander who are out for blood) supports the staff, admits mistakes, and actively solicits new perspectives. In the old days, Disney used to call this the "reverse pyramid" where the leaders at the top act as if the pyramid is inverted so that they are now at the bottom and everything they do, every decision they make, should support everyone above from administrative assistants to part-timers in the parks.

Today, Disney leaders must answer to many masters including Disney Brand and Disney Legal, not to mention financial restrictions, so I know it is a tough job, but I would love to see more of a balance back to Walt's ways.

Since most of you will never obtain a copy of the Edge magazine July/August 2013 issue where my contribution is on page 7, I felt I would take the time to share it here. since we all know that magazines, unlike books, disappear very quickly, often never to be located again, I retained the copyright, something I always try to do when I can.

I tried my best to cram as much information as I could into the 500 words that were allotted but this still just gives the smallest glimpse into Walt Disney as a leader.

"Who Was Walt Disney?

"Walter Elias Disney, the famous creator of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland, grew up a poor Midwestern farm boy who barely completed his first year of high school before he entered the workplace. He went on to transform animation from a pleasurable novelty into a respected art form, re-imagined the traditional amusement park into a clean, family-friendly environment that told stories, and introduced customer service concepts from nametags to nomenclature that impacted businesses around the world. Before his death, he was designing and preparing to build, in Florida, a Utopian international city making use of the newest technologies that would have changed urban planning forever.

"What Qualities Did Walt Disney Have As a Leader?

"Disney was a charismatic, passionate, visionary leader who inspired his followers to consistently exceed what they thought was possible and to explore unfamiliar disciplines. He established both formal and informal channels of communication, often directly approaching front line workers like gardeners and ticket-takers to get their opinions not only of challenges but possible solutions. He genuinely liked people and knew that each person needed to be handled differently to produce what he needed. He took his work seriously but not himself, often purposely mis-buttoning his sweater so he would appear less intimidating. While he was a calculated risk taker, he also took full responsibility for any failure, giving his followers the confidence to try new things that might not work out rather than playing it safe.

"What Qualities Do You Think He Lacked As a Leader?

"Disney had an acknowledged lack of patience as well as a fiery temper, often sparked or aggravated by back pains from a 1930s polo injury that never healed properly. Employees nicknamed his foul moods as "wearing the bear suit" and would avoid approaching him during those times, even on important issues. While Disney was a mesmerizing storyteller, he could sometimes be vague on the specifics of a project or what he wanted, expecting his employees to somehow fill in the blanks without further guidance. While Disney trusted his staff, he insisted on approving individual steps in a process, resulting in a loss of time and added money while various departments waited for that approval in order to proceed to the next step.

"What Lessons Do You Think Modern Leaders Can Learn From Him?

"Disney was completely committed to any project he proposed and communicated the overall result he desired visually either through storyboards or concept art and models, so that everyone connected with any aspect of the project knew exactly what the big picture was and their place in making it happen. Disney dreamed big, the famous "Blue Sky" approach where the vastness of the sky is the sole limit to the original idea and only gradually to let deadlines, budgets and limited resources slowly chip away at the final product. Disney believed in his dreams so intensely that it evoked a similar commitment from his staff. Disney always put himself in the place of his audience or customers and was well aware of their needs and wants. For the first months at Disneyland, some pathways were not initially paved because Disney told his staff "The guests will show us where they want to walk."

Are MousePlanet readers interested in reading any more about Walt and leadership during his lifetime?



  1. By DisneyGator

    Hmmm. Was Walt a micro-manager? By reading a few bits of info you provided, it reminds me of some micro-managers I've had - only Walt could inspire rather than just create a network of fear like most micro-managers. What do you think?

  2. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyGator View Post
    Hmmm. Was Walt a micro-manager? By reading a few bits of info you provided, it reminds me of some micro-managers I've had - only Walt could inspire rather than just create a network of fear like most micro-managers. What do you think?

    Very clever that you spotted that Walt could be a micro-manager. In my presentation, I point out some of the Leadership things NOT to do that Walt did.

    Walt, however, fought against micro-managing. For instance, he took an extended trip to Europe in 1935 and left others in charge to make decisions about the animated shorts. He did this purposely because he was going to start work on SNOW WHITE and he couldn't micro-manage both the shorts and the feature. To his delight, he discovered that the people he had trained and trusted made the right decisions in his absence so it made it possible for him to focus on SNOW WHITE when he returned.

    Walt considered his micro-managing "attention to detail" and for the most part, it was. Often he would give an animator or an Imagineer an assignment with only vague suggestions and let them loose to achieve it. Only later he would come in to the project to tweak it...generally for the better. If the animator or Imagineer had the project fail or explode, Walt always supported them if he felt they had made their best effort, something most micro-managers would not do. In the Fantasyland attraction, Walt wanted Dumbo's ears to flap but when it proved not to work well, without hesitation he had that addition eliminated.

    Walt liked to get his hands in everything and play but it is important to remember that most of the people involved WANTED Walt's input and approval. However, there was sometimes a frustration where Walt had to sign off on something before it proceeded to the next level and with Walt's busy schedule, he wasn't always available to do so as quickly as people liked.

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