Learn Walt Disney Leadership Style In Three Easy Steps

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By Lenn Millbower

Walt Disney was an incredible leader. Learn how you can adapt Walt Disney leadership styles for yourself in this easy to follow guide from HRDQ-U!

A Surprising Notion

“I tear the hell out of them. I pound, pound, pound.” —Walt Disney

Surprised by that quote? Most people are. It was not Walt Disney’s finest hour. It was, however, an important part of Walt Disney’s leadership journey.

Most people remember Walt as the kindly, loving, mischievous, impish uncle on television via his Disneyland and Wonder World of Color TV programs. The Walt on television was, by most accounts, an extension of the Walt at that stage of his life. But Walt went through much trial and error to become that guy on television.

Walt Disney’s Evolving Leadership Styles

When distilled into these phrases, or “acts,” to use show business terms, and as explained in my book Care Like a Mouse, Walt’s journey provides lessons applicable to any leader. Those three acts can be described as:

  • Act One, The Pal
  • Act Two, The Boss
  • Act Three, The Guide

Act One – The Pal

In Act One, The Pal, Walt was, like his namesake Mickey Mouse, everyone’s best buddy. Walt Disney, likely for lack of funding and a young man’s naïveté, ran his business as a communal enterprise. With little income to pay salaries, everyone was expected to share in both hardships and success.

Walt would inspire his staff with a vision of creating a new entertainment art form: animation. His leadership style was communal, collaborative, and almost utopian. This style worked… as long as there were no profits to share. With the huge financial successes of Mickey Mouse and Snow White, it became increasingly difficult to maintain.

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Act Two – The Boss

Walt tried to maintain his communal attitude. But at the studio, flush with money, resentment built up. Sacrifices seemed pointless in a studio raking in money. Individual identities resurfaced. A lack of organizational structure made for chaos. Perceptions of inequity, arbitrary pay raises, and hard work gone unrewarded fueled resentment. This resentment led to individual demands for better pay, better working conditions, and more individual recognition.

In one example, Walt Disney complained that employees who were happy to work on any surface and sit in any chair when there was no money were now complaining about who had the best drawing desk and chairs.

People quit. People went on strike. Walt, frustrated that his “boys” (as he called all of them) did not appreciate how good he had treated them, changed.

And then, World War II hit. Overseas profits were frozen. Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi did not perform well at the box office. The U.S. military took over the studio grounds. Disney was forced to make military training films.

In spite of Walt’s inspirational visions, artistic pursuit no longer made a profit and gave way to expediency. As Walt himself described it, “We’re through with caviar. From now on its mashed potatoes and gravy.”

Walt Disney detached. He became moody and dictatorial. Team members reported that he would either be sighing in tired frustration or growling in anger. They described him as distrusting, disgruntled and dominating.

Jack Kinney explained that he would “… giving you the evil eye, with his finger pointed at your chest, that was very intimidating.” Ward Kimball said needed “…to put somebody down. You learned early on never to argue with him or to cross him.”

If Walt Disney’s career had ended in the 1940s, he would have been revered for his animation breakthroughs, but not as a leader and mentor. Act Two, The Boss, just like Act One, had not been a good model for leadership. The real Disney model for leadership was in the future and would come to fruition in Act Three, The Guide.

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Act Three The Guide

Walt Disney’s switch in leadership style grew gradually as the 1940s faded into the 1950s. A catalyst may have been the trip Walt Disney and Ward Kimball took to the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair. Walt had always loved trains. When animation no longer excite him, he removed himself from the minutia of day to day studio operations and turned to model training. We are all fortunate he did that because that tinkering led to the development of Disneyland.

Two other factors pushed Walt Disney towards a new view of leadership (1) Walt became a TV star thanks to his Disneyland TV show and (2) Walt had grown older, evolving from the passion-driven young man into a kindly, impish, wise old man. In this guise, Walt could weigh in on opinions where and when needed. He could support, guide, mentor, and coach without getting too deep into studio minutia.

Walt described his “Guide” role in this manner, “I think of myself as a little bee. I go from area to area and gather pollen and stimulate everybody.”

Freed from the daily grind, Walt Disney became the visionary everyone loved. Everything then fell in place. The product was well received, the studio made money and Walt’s people bloomed. From a leadership perspective, Disney was free to chart the course, touch the rudder when required and enjoy himself.

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What’s Your Leadership Style?

Think about your leadership style and the three acts.

  • Do you believe in a communal approach? This Pal approach is applicable for startups where you have to inspire people but have no real financial rewards to offer them. It can, however, be challenging when people feel they are being treated unfairly or not able to share in the rewards because of their efforts.
  • Are you The Boss? Do you control everything with dictatorial demands? Walt Disney was able to keep his studio together during tough times with The Boss approach, but the cost in acrimony and turnover was high. Bossing is applicable for tough times but may make tough times even tougher and encourage a talent drain.
  • Are you The Guide? – Do you share a vision and allow people to sail towards the horizon with direction only when truly required? For Disney, this approach worked best. The Guide is applicable when your employees respect you, know you know what you are doing, and really want your opinion. It does, however, require you to paint a vision and relax while others focus on delivering it.

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All three roles have their place, but the choice is clear. The Guide is the one leadership approach that yields the most benefits, the best teamwork and the best chance for an enjoyable life. It is, as Disney discovered, the recipe for success … with or without the trains. To learn more, view our webinar, the Caring for Castomers: A Disney Inspired Approach to Employee Engagement

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