How Bob Iger Built an Empire

And what we can learn from it.

Aaron Schnoor
Mar 12 · 5 min read
Image courtesy of Bloomberg

In late February, news broke that Bob Iger, the beloved CEO and leader of The Walt Disney Company, would be stepping down from his position. As Iger stated, “With the successful launch of Disney’s direct-to-consumer businesses and the integration of Twenty-First Century Fox well underway, I believe this is the optimal time to transition to a new CEO.”

Iger wasn’t merely an ordinary CEO. He was one of the most successful leaders in the history of the business. He transformed Disney from a powerhouse to an unsurmountable empire, a company with no equal on earth.

How did he do it? Let’s take a look at the lessons Iger’s life offers.

Hard work always pays off

Iger found a low-paying job at the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), working menial jobs for $150 per week. Unlike most of his colleagues, who graduated from Ivy League schools, Iger didn’t spend his weekly salary on expensive clothes, shoes, or cars. Instead, he saved his earnings and continued completing monotonous tasks.

“I couldn’t afford any of that stuff, but I knew I had a work ethic that was prodigious. And what happened early on is people started relying on me because they knew if they asked me to get something done,” Iger told the New York Times in 2019.

In Iger’s own words: “So suddenly I realized, well, wait a minute. I may not be special in certain ways. But when it came to getting things done, I was special. And that’s actually driven me throughout, you know?”

Iger’s hard work was eventually noticed. The future CEO rose through the ranks of the company, becoming the head of ABC Entertainment in 1989. And in 1994, after working at the company for 20 years, Iger was named as the president and chief operating officer of CapitalCities/ABC.

Forget about your ego

After a shakeup at Disney, it initially seemed evident that Iger would become the company’s next CEO. But Disney’s board of directors doubted that Iger could replace Eisner.

“Part of it was the association with him, I was just tarred by the same brush,” Mr Iger said. “And part of it was that at least to the board — talk about having to subjugate my own ego — it was his company and I was like a second-class citizen.”

By displaying his hard work ethic and enthusiasm, Iger was eventually granted the role as Disney’s CEO. But it required that Iger curb his own ego, relying more on his abilities as a leader than the accolades he had achieved at ABC.

Are we willing to forget our own egos, allowing our actions to speak on behalf of our potential?

Think Bigger

That’s how Iger led Disney to acquire other companies and expanding but did Disney’s revenue grow? Let’s take a look:

Graph courtesy of Quartz

Disney was already successful when Iger took over, earning $31 billion in revenue in 2005. But Iger continually searched for something bigger, something greater, and something more profitable than ever before. He was willing to take risks —like spending $71 billion to purchase 21st Century Fox — but he knew that those risks would eventually pay off.

As leaders, we have to be willing to think bigger than ever before. What is the most daring step your company could take? Or, in your own personal life, what is a big goal that would change everything?

Be willing to challenge yourself. Think bigger.

Kindness goes a long way

As David Geffen, co-creator of DreamWorks, once said, “Literally, I have never heard one person say a bad thing about him and I have never seen him be mean…To be honourable, decent, smart, successful and a terrific guy is unusual anywhere. But it is most unusual in the entertainment business. He’s in a category of one.”

Barry Diller, the creator of Fox Broadcasting Company, agreed. “Of all the characters here, he’s the one with the most courage and the most certainty. He has put as many cards in his hand as he could gather and he’s absolutely determined not to turn the world over to Netflix and Amazon. He is in every sense the real deal. And he’s grown into it, which is even more impressive.”

The oft-quoted tenet that “Nice guys finish last” is not the case for Bob Iger, and it should not be the case for you either. If anything, Iger’s story should show us the value in treating others as they ought to be treated. Respecting others, even in the hard-nosed world of business, goes a long way.

Perhaps that is the most valuable legacy that Bob Iger will leave.

As Iger wrote, being a fair and kind leader “means that you create an environment where people know you’ll hear them out, that you’re emotionally consistent and fair-minded, and that they’ll be given second chances for honest mistakes.”

How would the world be different if we all acted that way?

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Aaron Schnoor

Written by

Occasional Writer, Full-Time Student at Campbell University, and Editor at The Intelligence of Everything

The Startup

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