At Disney, Who is a Leader?

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

When you think of a leader at Disney who comes to mind? Walt Disney? Obviously. Roy Disney? Of course. Bob Iger. Yes. John Lassetter? Definitely. Michael Eisner? Certainly by title.

More important, what quality comes to mind when you think of them as a leader? Here are a couple of likely responses:

  • Vision & persistence
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Courage & determination
  • Care & concern for others
  • Models by example
  • Resourceful and practical
  • Performs under pressure

One of the paradigm shifts I had when I was a cast member at Walt Disney World was around the title of "Leader." I was a salaried employee responsible for developing and delivering Disney Institute programming. Shortly afterward, I was expected to attend a number of leadership development programs. I was confused. By title I wasn't a manager. I had no direct reports. But I was considered a leader. In fact, the way they distinguished salaried employees there, was that they would refer you as a whether or not you had direct reports.

Cast member? Yes. Leader? Yes. Manager? No. How was that so?

Well, Disney's approach regarding leadership is that everyone is a leader—or at least everyone has the capability of being a leader. In that perspective, there are really three types of leaders: Positional, Personal, and Spontaneous. Let's look at each:

Positional Leadership

Of course Walt, Roy, Bob, Michael, and John are easily considered leaders by virtue of the fact that they have been positional leaders at Disney. For that matter, with some 135,000 cast members total, you can imagine that there are thousands of managers.

Of course, just because you have lots of managers doesn't mean you have lots of leaders. Wal-Mart has nearly 2 million employees. You can imagine the number of managers needed to commandeer the nearly 2 million employees found at Wal-Mart. But unless you worked there, you'd be hard pressed to identify two to three leaders. All managers and supervisors have positional leadership by virtue of their organizational authority. But we managers have a challenge to get others to follow them as positional leaders if they aren't also acting as personal and spontaneous leaders. So let's look at those two categories.

Personal Leadership

Every employee can practice personal leadership. In other words, we need to practice what we preach. This means we need to attain results and work effectively with others. and we need to do so consistently in our own endeavors each and every day.

Indeed, what made the Walt Disney Company the leader in animation, was that there were hundreds of people simply doing their very best work every day one cell at a time. That was really brought home to me by a colleague of mine that was an animator both for Disney and before that for a "competitor" some years ago. I asked that individual what was the difference between working at each of those studios. He told me that Disney's strength was bringing out the talents of each artist to create one great whole. At the other studio, the leader of that studio would have been happy if he could have drawn, traced, and painted every cell himself. It never seemed good enough, unless he himself did it.

That's such a contrast to the legendary story of Walt Disney being asked by a child if he drew Mickey Mouse. He had to confess that he no longer did. The child asked him, then just what was his job. Walt likened himself to being a bee that goes from flower to flower gathering and spreading pollen. In essence, he liked to gather ideas, and spread creativity around. He liked to bring his sense of vision to others, then let them build from that using their own strengths. And the result is not the work of one, but the work of many artists combined to create one work.

On that note, who painted the Sistine Chapel? Yes, Michelangelo. But also many other artists that worked with Michelangelo. He didn't paint every mural and fresco you see. He combined the talents of many and allowed them to show personal leadership in building the organization. The end result is a monument really so above any other of its time.

Spontaneous Leadership

When I think if Spontaneous Leadership my mind is quickly drawn to the experience of Captain Sullenberger and other crew members on board the U.S. Airways jet that landed in the Hudson River. Certainly, in the hour of need, spontaneous leadership came to the surface.

But we also have an opportunity each and every day to take initiative. That might mean taking the lead by being the first to do our work. Or to be the one who hangs in there when others give up. Or simply being the one who encourages others upwards and onwards when circumstances call for it.

More than anything, I think that is what makes the magic of a stay at your favorite Disney park. It's the individual effort and attention shown by cast members who go out of their way to do something really wonderful. it's the essence of great customer service. When individuals practice spontaneous leadership by being there for others when needed.

We all have the opportunity to fall into at least one of these categories. And for many of us, we have the opportunity to practice in more than one of these areas.

So what's the message? Can we be leaders and not necessarily managers? Can we be managers and not necessarily leaders? Absolutely. Both are true. It really comes down to how well we do the kinds of things we initially listed as virtues of leaders, whether we are in a role that is positional, personal, or spontaneous.

What does personal leadership look like in your organization? Who do you know that practices personal leadership? What characteristics do they exhibit?

What are some ways in which you exhibit spontaneous leadership? Who has been an example of someone who took the ball and made it happen when circumstances called for it?

What happens when you practice positional leadership but fail to practice personal and spontaneous leadership?

In what ways do these opportunities overlap? What does that look like in our organization? Is one type of leadership more important than the others? Are all equal? What matters most to you personally?

So there you go. Whether you're a positional, personal, or spontaneous leader, keep leading the magic for others.