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The three stages of Walt Disney and his leadership style – part three

Walt Disney was the sage in his last few years of life
Walt Disney was the sage in his last few years of life
Offbeat Training LLC

Roy Edward Disney, Walt Disney’s grandson and son of Disney Company co-founder Roy, once explained the following about his famous uncle.

If you get forty people in a room together and ask each of them to write down who Walt was, you’d get forty different Walts.

This article series has discussed three different Walts and the three different stages of Walt Disney’s leadership approach.

Act One – The Pal
Act Two – The Boss
Act Three – The Sage

The prior articles in this series introduced the topic and examined Act One – The Pal and Act Two – The Boss. This article examines Act Three – The Sage.

In Act One – The Pal, Walt Disney exhibited a communal leadership style; one in which everyone sacrificed for the greater good and all shared in success.

In Act Two – The Boss, Disney turned distant and hostile; firing people at will, unhappy with the product his studio turned out, and adrift without a focus he feltpassionate about.

Act 3 – The Sage reignited Walt’s passion and his ability to effectively lead people.

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. Rare photos of that visit, with Walt and Ward mugging for the camera, can be found at the D23 website.

Walt had always been a lover of trains, having even worked in his early youth selling tobacco, candy, and newspapers on the Missouri Pacific liner. When animation could no longer excite his imagination, he removed himself from day to day studio operations as much as possible and turned to trains as his new passion.

The world was fortunate that he did so, because his theme park design came about as a direct result of this love of trains and his desire to have a train studio visitors could ride. The side benefit of his new passion was that Walt Disney no longer had to dictate the minutia of every studio decision.

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 who had to grow a mustache to look grown up into an actual grownup. Both of these developments recreated Walt Disney as a kindly, impish, wise old man.

In this guise, Walt could weigh in on opinions where and when needed, he could support and guide, and mentor and coach.

Walt described his “Sage” 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 of details, 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.

Think about your leadership style and the three perspectives.

Do you believe in a communal approach? You are probably a “Pal.” Disney found it only worked when there was no wealth to fight over. This 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 they perceive came about because of their efforts.

The Boss – Do you control everything with dictatorial demands? You are probably “The Boss.” Walt Disney was able to keep his studio together during tough times with this approach, but the cost in acrimony and turnover was high. “The Boss” is applicable for tough times but may make tough times even harder and encourage a talent drain.

The Sage – 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 Sage” 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.

For this Examiner, the choice is clear. Although the Sage is the most difficult position to obtain, it is the one that yields the most benefits, the best teamwork, and the best chance for an enjoyable life. As Disney discovered, it is a recipe for success … with or without the trains.

The information in this article series is drawn from this Examiner’s actual experience as a 25 year Walt Disney World veteran, and from numerous biographies of Walt Disney, most notably Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of The American Imagination.