Disney-Inspired Leadership: Five Principles for Business Success

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In the halls of success in business history, few names shine as brightly as that of Walt Disney. A man who defied convention, Walt Disney’s journey to success was a remarkable testament to the power of visionary leadership. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t possess an MBA or attend business school. He was, by all definitions, a self-made leader. His profound impact on the world of entertainment and his enduring legacy can be attributed to a leadership approach that was distinctively his own.

In this insightful blog post, we will delve deeper into the five key principles of this Disney-inspired leadership and business approach that laid the foundation for the organization’s unparalleled and enduring success. We’ll be guided by Disney-inspired leadership expert Lenn Millbower, who draws upon his over 25 years of experience working at Walt Disney World to illuminate how these principles can be applied to transform your business into something magical.

Please Note: This article is not about current Disney-inspired leadership. It takes no position on the organization’s recent success or failures except to suggest that Walt always knew best.

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Disney-Inspired Leadership: What Are the 5 Principles of Disney’s Approach to Business Success?

Disney-inspired leadership principles stand as a beacon of inspiration, offering valuable insights into how they built an entertainment empire that continues to enchant generations.

Disney’s 5 Business Principles:

Purpose

Walt Disney was very clear about what his organization’s purpose was: making inanimate objects move to make people, especially families and children, happy. He likely never developed a vision/mission statement. Vision/mission statements are useful in the executive suite but are mostly irrelevant to the theme park frontline. The custodian sweeping the street in a Disney park isn’t usually, for instance, concerned about making quarterly dividends. He is, however, motivated to make people happy. And this happiness focus is the glue that focuses the entire organization on its true purpose.

Disney’s unwavering focus on purpose reminds us that a tangible and authentic purpose can bind an organization’s members together and drive its ultimate success.

Priorities

Within the Walt Disney-inspired leadership, they set up two kinds of priorities: behavioral and operational. They called the behavioral expectations the “Disney Basics.” The idea was to list the baseline expectations each leader and employee (cast member) were expected to deliver. The leader basics could, for example, be summed up in three words: positivity, knowledge, and accountability. The cast, in four phrases: positive energy, courtesy and respect, staying in character, and going above and beyond.

The operational priorities consisted of four words, listed in order of importance: safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency. These words were applied at every level of the organization to make decisions. All a cast member or leader had to do when confronted with any situation, was ask themselves if the situation was safe. If safe, was it courteous? If courteous, was it a good show? Efficiency resulted when safety, courtesy, and show issues were effectively dealt with.

People

Disney personnel, even the CEO, wear first-name nametags. That expectation came directly from Walt. He explained that he wanted anyone in the organization to feel comfortable talking to him. It worked. I can attest that during my 25 years as a Disney cast member, I had numerous encounters with senior executives, including the then CEOs, and found everyone approachable. An underlying philosophy is that a great leader delivers a great employee experience. Satisfied employees deliver a great customer experience. Happy customers become loyal. Business profits result.

Platform

The “stage” the delivery of service occurs on is the platform. Walt was a movie director and thought of his theme parks as 3D experiences for his guests. Movies go to great lengths to deliver continuity. Imagine gladiators fighting in the Roman Coliseum, for example, with a Toyota truck driving by. It would destroy the illusion the movie creates. The Disney theme park environment, likewise, works because every element on the platform is carefully orchestrated to align with the message being delivered.

Process

You can have the noblest of purposes, clear priorities, amazing people, and a tightly focused platform and still fail if your processes undercut the delivery of service. Disney’s greatest strength is one that is rarely noticed: an aggressive and never-ending focus on improving the experience. From small items like replacing curbs with ramps to big initiatives like combining property and wide guest payment processes into a single user-friendly system, Disney is constantly reaching for better ways to deliver a magical experience.

How Do These Principles Help Walt Disney’s Leadership and Business Success?

The enduring success of Disney can be attributed to its unwavering commitment to five critical focus areas: purpose, priorities, people, platform, and process. Walt Disney’s self-made path to success exemplifies that with passion, dedication, and a clear sense of purpose, remarkable achievements are possible even without a formal business education. To unlock your organization’s potential, consider embracing the principles that have magnified Disney’s results. Transform your culture with the magic of Disney-inspired practices and witness the boundless possibilities it can unfold. If you mousify your culture, they can magnify your results too.

Author
Headshot of Lenn Millbower
Lenn Millbower

Lenn Millbower, the Mouse Man™ and author of Care Like a Mouse, teaches Walt Disney-inspired service, leadership, innovation, training, and success strategies. Everything Disney touched seems magical. It isn’t. It’s a method. Lenn saw that method up close. He spent 25 years at Walt Disney World as an Epcot Operations trainer, Disney-MGM Studios stage manager, Animal Kingdom opening crew, Disney Institute, Disney University, and Walt Disney Entertainment management. Now, he shares methodologies that will help you make your own magic.

Connect with Lenn on LinkedIn, FacebookTwitterYouTube, and at www.likeamouse.com

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