Robert Iger's Leadership: A Magical Touch That Forever Changed Disney

Robert Iger's Leadership: A Magical Touch That Forever Changed Disney

The fourth post of the Leadership Series, where we break down the traits and styles of leaders who've had a significant impact on the companies, countries, or communities they lead.

If you want to learn how to turn around a company's business by exercising strategic leadership, this post is for you.

It's magical, just like Disney's stories, to see a once weatherman go on to become the CEO of the world's largest media conglomerates and 4th most admired company (according to Forbes).

When Robert Iger, former CEO of Disney, was 23, his first boss at ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation) told him he was “unpromotable." Guess Bob had the last laugh & the also the promotions till he became the CEO of Disney (which bought ABC in 1995).

Robert 'Bob' Iger began his career at the age of 23 with ABC in 1974 as a Studio Supervisor making $150/week, the lowest level on the company’s employment ladder. He spent the next 31 years climbing up the corporate ladder and handled 20 different positions before finally becoming the CEO of The Walt Disney Company in 2005. He served as the leader of the company till 2021.

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I recently read Robert Iger's book The Ride of a Lifetime, in which he shares the lessons he learnt during his time at the top of one of the world’s most powerful brands.

He talks about the necessary qualities to build a healthy leadership style in his book. Some of the traits revolve around building curiosity, creativity, and sincerity with an acceptance of risk and an ability to learn from mistakes. The ideas for this post are primarily derived from the book and are worth sharing. If you wonder what makes him qualified to share leadership knowledge, let's find out what he achieved.

Bob Iger’s Major Achievements at Disney

  • Major Acquisitions:
  • Pixar films in 2006 for $7.4 billion. Since its acquisition, Pixar has made $11 billion+ at the box office.
  • Marvel studio in 2009 for $4 billion. It had as earned $22 billion at the box office for Disney.
  • Lucasfilms studio (the Star Wars production company)  in 2012 for $4 billion, giving Disney control over two major Hollywood franchises—Star Wars and Indiana Jones
  • The opening of Shanghai Disneyland opened in 2016. It attracted 11 million visitors in just one year.
  • Iger revived the Disney park by creating new worlds tied to Disney's new intellectual properties. New worlds like "Car Land", "Avatar World", and "Star Wars Galaxy Edge" were opened by 2019.
  • Shares went from $25 per share in 2005 to nearly $140 in August 2019, a 450% increase.
  • Disney made $2.5 billion in net income in 2005, the year when Bob Iger was named CEO. In 2019, the company’s net income was $12.6 billion, a 404% increase.
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These extraordinary numbers and the legacy he left behind at Disney make him uniquely qualified as a mentor for leaders, managers, entrepreneurs, and visionaries looking to learn how to become better leaders.

5 Big Lessons From Robert Iger That Define Healthy Leadership

Project Optimism

In Feb 1988, Iger was covering the Winter Games as a senior program executive at ABC. His role was to plan the scheduling of all televised events. When the Olympics started, everything went smooth for a few days until strong, dry winters began blowing. This melted the snow, and the event after the event got cancelled.

Instead of looking at the situation as a catastrophe, he looked at it like a puzzle that needed to be solved. He had to project the same optimism to his team and make them believe that they were talented enough to find a solution.

In his book, Robert writes, “It was a perfect example of the need for optimism.”

Finally, all went well. His bosses were pleased, and the ratings were historically high.

According to Bob, optimism is especially needed in difficult times when it's hard to come by. It's necessary to make people feel confident in their ability to focus on what matters and work from a place of courage rather than fear. This doesn't mean projecting a rosy picture or "hoping" things will work out. It's about trusting the strategy and people around you to work towards the best possible outcome.

“Optimism is a core principle of good leadership. People just don’t want to follow someone who is a pessimist." ~ Robert Iger

Takeaway:

You can project the challenging situation as a learning experience and give a direction that has the promise of bouncing back. You don't have to sound fake for all this. Optimism must be rooted in the achievable and realism too. Else your employees will know if you’re doing this to try to maintain positivity.

Decide your strategy and set priorities

When Bob was being interviewed by the board of Disney for the CEO position, he had to present his plan to take the company forward. He was about to make the mistake of listing down more than six priorities. And we all know, If you have too many priorities, you have none.

In his enthusiasm to show that he had a plan for solving all of Disney’s problems, he hadn't prioritized any of them. Too many priorities on the list mean there is a lack of clarity and inspiration.

But thankfully, he learned a lesson in priority setting from his friend before going to the interview with the board. "You can only have 3 priorities" -- that's what Bob's friend, who was a marketing and political consultant.

Bob distilled his strategy into 3 key elements for running Disney:

  • Invest most of Disney’s capital in high-quality branded content (i.e., creativity).
  • Use technology to make more compelling content and to reach people in more innovative ways.
    Grow globally, deepening connection to markets around the world.


Narrowing your priorities to three crystalline goals is half the battle. To sell your vision, you have to articulate it efficiently to a wide variety of people. This will come naturally to some people and might require intensive practice on the part of others. No matter which camp you fall into, remember: This vision-setting phase isn’t about you and how smart you are. It’s about the people in the room—about you understanding their language and presenting your vision in terms most accessible to them.

“If leaders don’t articulate their priorities clearly, then the people around them don’t know what their own priorities should be. Time and energy and capital get wasted.” ~ Robert Iger

Takeaway:

Narrow down your priorities.

Setting a vision to solve everything will make you look smart, but it's not about you. It's about the people you are leading -- they need to understand your visions and take them for execution. If your vision is not clear, you won't be able to articulate it efficiently to a wide variety of people, and hence it will not be translated into reality.

Be honest while firing people

As a CEO and especially at a time when innovation is at its peak, and the company needs a new set of people to run it, Bob had to fire a lot of people, including senior leaders, his friends and accomplished people. He feels this is the most challenging thing a boss has to do.

The one thing he always kept in mind while delivering the bad news to someone was to be honest so that there is at least a chance for the person on the other end to understand the reasons and eventually move on.

He couldn't find any playbook to do it gently, so he had his own rules. Here they are, as told in his book:

  • You have to do it in person, not over the phone and certainly not by email or text.
  • You have to look the person in the eye. You can’t use anyone else as an excuse. This is you deciding about them—not them as a person but the way they have performed in their job—and they need and deserve to know that it’s coming from you.
  • You can’t make small talk once you bring someone in for that conversation. Bob usually said something along the lines of: “I’ve asked you to come in here for a difficult reason.”
  • And then try to be as direct about the issue as possible, explaining clearly and concisely what wasn’t working and why you didn't think it would change. Emphasise that it was a tough decision to make and that you understand that it’s much harder on them.

Takeaway:

Great leaders have the courage to fire someone when required and make space for more suitable or capable people to move into those roles.

When firing or thinking about firing an employee, the first thing you can do is to get clear behind the reasoning to fire them. Once that is clear, keep your emotions aside and truly embrace "it's business, it's not personal."

Then you can proceed with the deed. Handle the situation with honesty and compassion. It would hurt them for a while, but they might forgive you. As someone wisely said, people may forgive you for what you did, but they will never forgive you for how you made them feel.

Take big risks

Bob's tenure as a CEO is lined with significant risks he took. While some failed and didn't cause any catastrophe, others put Disney at the entertainment industry's top.

Bob has 3 very large acquisitions to take credit for namely Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. But those deals would have never come about had he not been willing to take risks.

After becoming the CEO, he went to the first board meeting and pitched the idea to buy Pixar. The response was that of shock, amusement and doubt. It was considered too risky, too expensive and ill-advised. Steve's personality wasn't adding any positive points to go forward with the deal.

After a few meetings, the board concluded it was so unlikely to ever happen that they might as well let them amuse themselves by exploring it.

Bob took a lot of creative risks with shows and movie productions as well. The biggest one was producing the Twins Peak TV show that was dubbed as too weird, too dark, for network TV. ABC's previous boss wrote to Bob saying if he airs this, it will kill the company’s reputation.”

But he knew that TV shows were becoming dull and derivative, and they had to put out something creative and original. So they aired the pilot, and it generated a massive buzz in and outside of Hollywood. It led to directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas taking an interest in doing work with Disney. That would not have been possible if Twin Peaks wasn't released.

"The biggest risk you can take is not challenging the status quo." ~ Robert Iger

Takeaway:

In the words of the Pacific blue tang fish from Disney's favourite movie, Finding Nemo, "just keep swimming." Means, you have to keep innovating and can't stand still with the belief that you or your company are undefeatable now.

But before you go all guns blazing on risk-taking, do your own homework. Build mental models to help you think through what's right and wrong. Take as much data as available and assess it. If, after that, it feels right, take the risk. There is never going to be 100 per cent certainty.

Learn the art of negotiation

Not many business leaders give you an insight into their negotiation skills. Bob shared how he approached negotiating deals with Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilms.

​​No one believed Steve Jobs would be willing to sell Pixar. Not at any cost.

When Bob first called Steve to talk about buying Pixar, Bob was straightforward about it without beating around the bush. He was even honest about why buying Pixar was essential for Disney's future. His honesty cleared any doubts or assumptions and allowed for more authentic and efficient negotiating. When Jobs raised apprehensions about Disney destroying Pixar’s culture of creativity, Bob recognised the fear and arrived at a deal where that would be preserved.

When buying Lucasfilms, which was close to the heart of George Lucas, its creator, Bob approached it with utmost respect and preparation. He watched all six Star Wars films himself, took notes, and then waited for the right moment to begin the negotiation.

“I typically like to put things on the table in a fairly candid manner, in a direct manner, and do it quickly.”  ~ Robert Iger

Takeaway:

Any successful business leader needs negotiation skills in their arsenal. A combination of good communication, the power of persuasion, confident body language, and intelligent decision-making can help get them support, partnerships, mergers and anything they want to increase their company's market share.

What sets apart a good negotiator from a bad one is their ability to close a deal. Not necessarily win a deal (win on all points). Focus on the efficacy and clarity of communication. Don't let ego get in the way.

Robert Igers's Leadership Style: Strategic

What is strategic leadership?

Strategic leadership means that the leaders are operating with a clear plan to foster innovation, achieve goals, increase productivity and create an environment of creativity among team members.

Strategic business leaders bring a fresh perspective to every problem. They see challenges are puzzles that they have to solve. They see the big picture and focus on results more than the methods.

What are the pros and cons of the strategic style of leadership?

Advantages of strategic leadership style:

  • More clarity to the tasks: Strategic leaders are good at clearly communicating the strategy, goals and importance of a task, and how it relates to the overall goals. They provide more meaning to the work employees do. Hence, less time is wasted as things can go into execution once everything is clear.
  • Encourage collaboration: For a strategic plan to be successful, these leaders will encourage buy-in and unity. These two things can suppress the uprising of conflict, and encourage interdepartmental collaboration. In big companies, different departments can become siloed and operate on their own trajectory. Strategic leads prevent that from happening.
  • Build a culture of commitment: Strategic leaders are dedicated to the company's mission and expect the same from their teams. But before asking for that, they exemplify that with their own action. That way, loyalty to the brand is likely to be the top value in employees' minds.

Disadvantages of strategic leadership style:

  • Difficult to predict the future: Since leaders are trying to take bets on the future while running day-to-day operations, it can be tough to predict a company's future.
  • Lack of flexibility: While some strategic leaders might be adaptable, strategic plans are not. They are implemented all over the company, change is hard without impacting the work of an entire department.
  • If leaders are too conservative, they might not be able to take risks required to realise the strategic vision
  • Leaders have to be very conscious of handling the present while looking out into the company's future
  • If big plans fail, it can be expensive both time and money-wise. If something does not go as planned, it could mean firing people, cancellation of a big project, or the shutting of a whole department.

Stick Them in Your Journal

Here is a quick summary of what we learned from Robert Iger's leadership journey:

  • Project optimism
  • Decide your strategy and set priorities
  • Be honest while firing people
  • Take big risks, or you are at risk of becoming obsolete
  • Learn the art of negotiation

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