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

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This article series examines the three different stages of Walt Disney’s leadership approach. Although generalizations are difficult to make, Disney’s approach can be roughly divided into three different eras.

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

The last article in this series introduced the topic and examined Act One – The Pal. This article examines Act Two – The Boss.

As we discovered in the last article, Walt Disney, likely for lack of funding and a young man’s naïveté, ran his business as a communal enterprise where everyone was expected to share in both hardships and success.

It was a successful strategy when there were no financial returns to share. It became increasingly difficult to maintain with the huge financial successes of Mickey Mouse and Snow White.

Perceptions of inequity 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.

The situation reached it’s bleakest level when Walt Disney’s animators went on strike in 1941.

This was an especially rough period for Walt; one in which his “Pollyanna” approach to go leadership could not be sustained. World War II had cut off overseas markets and profits. Although Snow White was a hit, follow-ups Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi, and did not perform well at the box office.

Walt had been dedicated, and had inspired his staff, to the utopian ideal of animation as an art form, and the ensuing cost overruns for artistic experimentation. When artistic pursuit no longer made a profit, it had had to give way to expediency. As Walt himself described it, “We’re through with caviar. From now on it’s mashed potatoes and gravy.” The result was Dumbo and several package films.

When America entered World War II, the military took over the studio and much of Walt’s remaining staff enlisted or was drafted.

As a result of all these blows, Walt Disney became detached. During this period he was moody and dictatorial. He was either sighing or growling. His leadership style became disengaged. Various members of his staff described Walt as distrusting, disgruntled, and dominating. He would fire people indiscriminately and vindictively.

Long time team members began to describe Walt as “… giving you the evil eye, with his finger pointed at your chest, that was very intimidating (Jack Kinney)” and having an approach based on the need “…to put somebody down (Ward Kimball).” Kimball also added, “You learned early on never to argue with him or to cross him.”

The studio was no longer fun, creative only in spite of itself, and paranoid about the boss mood. 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 was not—just as Act One, The Pal was not—an ideal model for leadership. The Disney model for leadership was in the future and would come to fruition in Act Three – The Sage.

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.

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