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The three stages of Walt Disney and his leadership style

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There is a little-known dynamic about Walt Disney. Most people remember him as “Uncle Walt” on television via his Disneyland and Wonder World of Color TV programs. The image is one of a fun loving, mischievous, impish grandpa.

By most accounts, the Walt on television was an extension of the Walt at that stage of his life. But, that Walt was one Disney came to later in his life.

Look at this earlier quote from Walt.

I tear the hell out of them. I pound, pound, pound.

And the one below.

Every once in a while I fire somebody, then I hire them back in a couple of weeks. That way they don’t get too complacent.

That hardly seems like the Walt we remember. It’s not. It took Walt Disney years of trial and experimentation to become the fun loving older man. Especially as reported by Neil Gabler in his wonderful Walt Disney: The Triumph of The American Imagination, Walt Disney went through a series of adventures before he became the man people remember.

This Examiner has distilled these phrases, or Acts in show business terms, into a describable essence applicable to leaders and anyone else wishing to learn from the success that Disney enjoyed.

Those three phases can be described as:
Act One – The Pal
Act Two – The Boss
Act Three – The Sage

Act One – The Pal

In Act One Walt was, like his namesake Mickey Mouse, was everyone’s pal. Walt, perhaps because he had no money to pay anyone, operated in a communal manner were everyone sacrificed for the greater good.
With no money to actually pay anyone, Walt had to inspire his team members with his vision.

Walt would articulate how the team was breaking ground on a new entertainment medium and how those who stayed with him were creating a new art form.

Walt was communal, collaborative, and almost utopian in his leadership style. This style, embraced during the lean years before Mickey Mouse became a star, continued right up to circumstances would change Walt’s outlook in the 1940s.

Even after the success of Mickey Mouse and Snow White, Walt maintained a communal attitude. The studio, flush with money, could have been described as a worker’s paradise.

There was no formal org chart, no time clock, liberal raises, free milkshakes, a free barbershop, a nude sunbathing deck (for men only), and a paid vacation in August every year.

The result was communal visioning, shared sacrifice, a sense of collaboration, and many new innovations. It could not, however, last. Individual identities, suppressed in the lean days, surfaced. There were complaints about arbitrary pay raises. Sacrifices seemed pointless in a studio raking in money. The lack of structure made for chaos. Innovation always got credited to Walt, and not the true innovator. Artists, being creative types, chaffed under the collectivist yoke. People complained. People quit. People went on strike.

Walt, frustrated that his “boys” (as he called all of them) did not appreciate how good they had it and, after a major studio trauma, he changed.

Our next article will discuss Walt Disney’s second act when he became The Boss.

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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