Lessons I Learned From Walt Disney

I’ve come to the conclusion that I must look a lot older than I really am. In the last year I’ve had at least three people approach me after one of my presentations and ask if I had ever worked with Walt Disney. Worked with Walt Disney? I was seven years old when Walt died, for crying out loud.

Walt PortraitSo no, I never worked with Walt. But I can say without exaggeration that I owe my career to him. Without Walt Disney I wouldn’t have been blessed to spend 20-years working in one of the theme parks he dreamed up. And I wouldn’t have spent the last 19-years sharing some of the lessons I learned during my Disney career as I help organizations improve their customer service.

I owe a lot to Walt Disney. And while I never met the man (much less worked for him), I’ve learned a lot about leadership from studying his life for many, many years. I’d like to share just a few of the lessons here. In no particular order, some of the lessons I learned from Walt Disney include:

Spend LOTS of time with your customers and employees – Walt was known for wandering around Disneyland, preferably incognito, talking with guests and just observing what they were happy with or unhappy with. He would regularly ask cast members what they would do to make the park better. He would use this information to make ongoing improvements to the operation.

The best leaders I meet in my work are the ones who spend very little time in their offices. They’re out meeting with customers, talking with employees, and spending time in the company’s call center, listening and learning.

Don’t rest on your laurels – People who actually did work with Walt all say that he was never satisfied with simply repeating past successes. He was always looking to break new ground; doing things that had never been done before. His relentless passion for the new led to the first sound cartoon, the first color cartoon, the first full-length animated feature, the first true theme park, etc.

With the success of the Disney animated film, Three Little Pigs, in 1933, movie theater operators begged Walt for “more pigs.” His response was simply, “You can’t top pigs with pigs.” He had other ideas in mind.

I love working with companies that are already doing well with regard to customer service, and want to do even better. In fact, effective leaders know that the BEST time to focus on getting better is when things are already going well. They use the momentum of success to focus on the question, “What’s next?”

Sweat the small stuff – From the start, Walt was known for demanding perfection from his animators. He would drive them crazy by making them constantly redraw characters and scenes until he was satisfied that every detail was just right. Even when something just didn’t feel right to him, he would agonize over it (and cause his animators to agonize over it) until the solution appeared. Animators would later say that because of Walt’s perfectionism, they produced results they never thought themselves capable of.

The best companies are the pickiest companies. The best restaurants, for example, make sure that the place is spotless, because it communicates a positive message. The best hospitals make sure that every detail communicates a message of healing and care. The best law firms make sure every detail communicates a message of trust. The best car companies make sure every detail communicates a message of quality. And the leaders of the best companies make sure that everyone in the organization sweats the small stuff.

The story is the thing – Walt was a storyteller. His movies as well as Disneyland were based on compelling stories. If something didn’t fit the story, it was out of the finished product. Animators have told stories of being heartbroken when a piece of animation they’d been working on for months ended up on the cutting room floor because it didn’t precisely fit the story.

Walt made sure that the various elements of Disneyland were based on a solid story. Every aspect of Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, etc, was to fit the theme of that particular land. Guests were to feel that they were actively taking part in the story.

Walt personally told stories to inspire his employees. There’s the famous story of how one evening Walt gathered his animation team to share his vision of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which would end up as the first full-length feature animated film. Animators who were there talked of being mesmerized as Walt told the Snow White story as he saw it in his mind, acting out the various characters. One of those in attendance even claimed that they didn’t make the movie as good as Walt told the story. That’s pretty powerful.

Effective leaders know that while data and statistics connect with the mind, stories connect with the heart. Well-told stories create an energy that statistics alone cannot. Check out an article I wrote, How to Use Storytelling as a Leadership Tool.

Surround yourself with outstanding talent – While Walt started out as a cartoonist, he learned early on that his drawing skills were limited. He needed others more skilled than himself to bring his ideas to life. Ub Iwerks, for example, was responsible for the distinctive look of Mickey Mouse, while Walt was responsible for Mickey’s personality (and Mickey’s voice initially).

Whether it was animators, directors, engineers (Imagineers), planners, or any other role, Walt brought in top talent to help make his dreams come true. He knew his strengths were in coming up with ideas and telling stories, and he needed the skills and talents of others to bring those ideas and stories to life.

Great leaders know what they're good at, and what they're not good at. They have enough self-confidence to surround themselves with outstanding people who have skills and expertise they don’t have themselves. They don’t see the talent of others as a threat, but as a multiplier of their own talents.

Always be in learning mode – Walt was always in learning mode. When he had an idea he would study every aspect of the idea. He would read books, talk to experts, and devour everything he could on the subject. In his daily life he’d observe what was happening all around him and synthesize his observations into his ideas.

And he insisted his employees be in learning mode, too. He sent his animators to art classes so that they could improve their skills, sometimes driving an animator to class himself if they didn’t have a car. When he had some money, he’d bring art teachers directly to the studio so that animators could keep improving their craft. During the planning of Disneyland he sent his Imagineers to amusement parks and carnivals to see what frustrated visitors and then apply what was learned to the new park.

Though he dropped out of high school at 16 years old, Walt Disney never stopped learning.

Visiting the office of a company’s CEO, I’m often thrilled to see the extensive library he or she has in the office. Sometimes the bookcases are so full that books are stacked on tables, chairs, or any other flat surface. Scanning the book titles of some of these leaders reveals a thirst for knowledge that can help give them and their companies an edge. (And I’ll admit here that I usually look to see if any of my books are in the collection – but don’t tell anyone that.)

There’s no such thing as a perfect leader – This lesson is more of a disclaimer than a lesson. As much as I admire Walt Disney, I’m realistic enough to know that he was by no means a perfect leader. Through my research on Walt as well as by talking with many who worked for him, it is apparent that he had his faults. He was slow to praise, for example. High praise from Walt might simply be the comment, “That’ll work,” and even that was pretty rare.

If you didn’t seem to get an idea Walt was trying to convey, he was quick to let you know his displeasure. More than one animator told of being reduced to tears under Walt’s withering criticism. No, he wasn’t a perfect leader. But, of course, no one is. In spite of his faults, he built a company that represents one of the most recognizable and powerful brands on the planet.

These are just a few of the leadership and business skills that I learned from the life of Walt Disney. There are more, but this post is already twice as long as it was meant to be. Maybe I’ll do another post with some of the other skills I learned from him. Or maybe I’ll write a book on the subject. Who knows.

Something to think about: Who are your business heroes? What did you learn from them? Take the time to write your thoughts down, as this exercise serves as a good reminder of what YOU can strive for as a leader.