5 Leadership Lessons from Bob Iger (CEO of Disney)

I recently had the great fortune to attend a talk by Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, about leadership and culture at Disney.

Bob’s story is remarkable. He began his career as a weatherman at a local TV station. Over the course of 30 years, he rose up the ranks at ABC and then Disney (which acquired ABC), until he became Disney’s CEO in 2005. Under Bob’s leadership, Disney’s stock grew from 28 to 120 (>4x growth in 10 years). Disney has made a number of strategic acquisitions under Bob, including buying Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm.

Bob shared some of his leadership lessons from Disney over the years. Here are the five most important take-aways I had from his talk:

  1. Create a simple, clear vision
  2. Make long-term bets
  3. Set ambitious, risky goals
  4. Be curious and optimistic
  5. Strive for excellence

Create a simple, clear vision

When you look at Disney’s business, it seems very complicated. They have multiple business lines: movie studios, TV brands, consumer goods (toys, clothing, accessories), retail stores, and theme parks. They also have multiple major brands within the Disney family: Disney itself, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and ESPN. That’s why it’s important for Disney to have a simple, clear vision that ties everything together. Bob shared the vision for Disney during his talk, and it’s incredibly simple.

“We’re in the business of telling stories.”

If you had to sum up Disney’s purpose, vision, and business model in one line — that’s it. They’re in the business of telling stories. Bob said that if Disney only does one thing well, it should be this, and then the entire business will grow from there. Telling stories is where Disney should be distinctive, and should be #1. Storytelling has been at the core of Disney’s success since it’s founding in the 1920s. It’s the reason why Disney acquired Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars — all three franchises are excellent at telling stories.

So how does storytelling help with Disney’s overall business?

“Tell a story, and then leverage that story across multiple lines of business and territories.”

In business-speak, telling stories enables Disney to create high-quality branded content. From this content, Disney retains its brand value, even among all of the media fragmentation and explosive growth of consumer choices. Each new media platform — Hulu, Netflix, Amazon — as well as the traditional cable companies, come to Disney first to get access to content.

From the stories, Disney creates iconic characters. Disney can then leverage the content and the characters across multiple lines of business. They can create merchandise featuring the characters to fuel the consumer business. They can create rides and physical experiences derived from the stories to fuel the theme park business.

To tie all of these seemingly disparate businesses together, Bob uses one simple unifying concept — storytelling.

Make long-term bets

Bob believes in the value of persistence and thinking long-term. His favorite example of the value of making long-term bets is Disneyland Shanghai, which opens this spring 2016.

The creation of Disneyland Shanghai was a 17-year process. 17 years! It is a $6 billion project that has employs over 10,000 workers and has involved long, hard negotiations with the Chinese government. There have been numerous setbacks along the way — every change in Chinese leadership over the past 17 years has meant new parties to the negotiation, and new demands. There have been setbacks with the local population at the Disneyland Shanghai site; with local construction companies (manufacturing quality and materials); and with the local media. But Bob and Disney have remained incredibly persistent despite the adversity. Now, 17 years later, Disneyland Shanghai is set to open this spring. Bob said that he and his team have been willing to be patient and persistent because they believe in the value of what they’re creating with Disneyland Shanghai for the Chinese people, and for Disney’s business.

This story reminds me of a post I wrote last year, “Making Big Bets,” where I discussed an interview Jeff Bezos gave about Amazon’s approach to thinking long-term:

Our first shareholder letter, in 1997, was entitled, “It’s all about the long term.” If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue. At Amazon we like things to work in five to seven years. We’re willing to plant seeds, let them grow — and we’re very stubborn. We say we’re stubborn on vision and flexible on details.

Set ambitious, risky goals

Bob talked about how he’s a big believer in taking risks. One of the things that he does regularly is “take people out of the small things that they’re doing, and put them onto big things.” He noted that sometimes the best, most talented people get caught up doing small things that will never be big, will never move the needle. He encourages his people to take a step back once in a while and ask themselves if what they’re working on is truly a big enough bet. Bob said:

“I love ambition. Walt loved ambition. He almost took the whole company bankrupt when he launched the first theme park in the 1950s.”

This leadership point also reminded me of the Google approach to “thinking 10x” described in “How Google Works” by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg:

Most people tend to think incrementally rather than transformationally or galactically… That’s why one of Eric and Larry’s challenges to engineers and product managers in Google product reviews was always “you aren’t thinking big enough”… Later replaced by the Larry Page directive to “think 10x.”

Be Curious and Optimistic

In order to innovate and create something new, Bob said that it’s important to be curious and optimistic. One of the things that Bob seeks out in hiring is curiosity.

“I like curiosity. You can’t innovate if you’re not curious.”

He also said:

“In addition to curiosity, optimism is an important trait for leaders. Especially during times of adversity. You have to be realistic, but you also have to have faith in the future. In today’s world, there are a lot of exogenous events that are beyond our control. Despite these events, you need to have faith and optimism that everything will be all right, and that your vision is solid. Look, we’re about to open up Disneyland Shanghai after 17 years of work. We can’t control that the Chinese stock market is in the midst of a major pullback right now, and that there are questions about the Chinese economy. People often ask me, ‘Are you sure you want to open Disneyland Shanghai right now, with everything going on with the Chinese market?’ I’m optimistic for the long-term. The current market in China doesn’t bother me.”

Bob’s perspective on being optimistic — and resilient during times of adversity — resonated a lot with me. As I’ve written in “How to Be More Resilient”:

What are the differences between pessimists and optimists?
Pessimists tend to look at negative events as permanent, universal, and internal.
Optimists tend to look at negative events as temporary, specific, and external.

Just look at the way Bob thinks about the market slowdown in China — it gives you some insight into his optimistic thinking. He describes it as “current” (i.e. temporary) and “exogenous” (i.e. external). A pessimistic may have looked at the Chinese market slowdown as a death knell for Disneyland Shanghai. In the pessimist’s view, the theme park would have a terrible opening — it would start on a bad note and struggle to ever grow. The optimist would look at it and say, “This is bad timing and bad luck, but it’s temporary and due to external events. It’s not a permanent knock against what we’ve built, and it’s not due to anything inherent to us, our abilities, or our product.” Which is exactly how Bob thinks about it.

Strive for Excellence

Bob’s final leadership lesson was a call for all of us to strive for excellence in our work. He said:

“I’m amazed at how many times people are willing to accept mediocrity. One of the things I learned from Steve Jobs is how he demanded excellence. And the results he got were obvious. The concept of excellence was embodied in the products that Apple shipped under Steve’s leadership.”

Bob was referring to the relationship he built with Steve Jobs as Disney first partnered with and then acquired Pixar, where Steve was CEO. Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, wrote about how candor and a process called “The Braintrust” enables Pixar to raise the quality of their work and produce excellent films. Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, has described his process for how to build excellent products:

  1. Build something that a small number of users love (not just like), and you’ll see positive word of mouth
  2. Start with something simple — pick a few simple things, and do them extraordinarily well. “If your product is Great, it doesn’t need to be Good.”
  3. Be “fanatical” about customer feedback

Bob discussed five key leadership lessons in his talk:

  1. Create a simple, clear vision
  2. Make long-term bets
  3. Set ambitious, risky goals
  4. Be curious and optimistic
  5. Strive for excellence

All of Bob’s leadership and culture lessons really resonated with me. His leadership approach touched on many of the themes and concepts I’ve read and also written about over the past couple of years. It’s fascinating to see how Bob Iger has been able to create a leadership culture with a company as vast and diverse in its business interests as Disney. Hope that you will be able to apply some of Bob Iger’s leadership lessons to your own situation — I know I will!