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Walt Disney LeadershipWalt Disney Leadership


Walt Disney (1901-1966)


Famous for his animated films and characters like Mickey Mouse, although Mary Poppins (1964), was his biggest earning film.

He (pictured right) opened Disneyland (near Los Angeles) in 1955 and was building Disney World in Florida, when he died.


Why was he a great leader?


1. Innovation and risk taking

He was a brilliant and innovative storyteller.

The idea of Mickey Mouse came from a real mouse he kept in a cage on his desk.

He wanted to call him Mortimer, but his wife, Lillian, told him this was “too sissy” and suggested the name Mickey on a train journey from New York to Los Angeles.Walt Disney Leadership

Steamboat Willie (1928), Mickey Mouse’s first film (pictured right), was the first popular sound cartoon.

Despite the risk of extra expense, he also produced the:

  • first film in Technicolor - Flowers and Trees in 1931
  • first animated full length feature film - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which was a huge success.

He always preferred technical innovation to cutting costs. Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) and Bambi (1942) all failed to recover their production costs, despite being artistic triumphs.

He was also the first movie boss to go into television.


2. Vision and challenging aims

His purpose was “to bring happiness to the millions”, giving inoffensive and moralistic family entertainment like Snow White, pictured right below. So he wanted his cartoon characters to be human and lovable.

He believed that the four C’s were vital for success:

 Walt Disney Leadership

a) curiosity

Continuously searching for new and better ways of doing things.


b) confidence, courage and constancy 

(to achieve his dreams and belief in goodness and decency).


“Always remember that this whole thing was started with a dream and a mouse”, he said.


3. Customer satisfaction

He was motivated by a real love of his customers, not just by profit (saying that Disneyland was “a work of love”).

People loved his good-natured heroes like Mickey Mouse, who triumphed over evil with great drama, emotion, humour and music.

This particularly cheered people up during the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

He also cleverly used his characters in:

  • merchandising (like Mickey Mouse toys). Walt Disney Leadership
  • his theme parks.


4. Great people

He was ably assisted by his brother, Roy (pictured right above), and great animators like Ub Iwerks (pictured right below) who drew Mickey Mouse, even though Disney led people to believe that he had.

Continually stealing the animators’ limelight caused a great deal of resentment.Walt Disney Leadership

But he still saw his studio as one big happy family and particularly valued loyalty.

He was brilliant at giving people the job that was just right for them and paid them well, particularly the animators.


5. Charisma

His employees were inspired by his charisma including the women who fell for his handsome looks and charm

He was particularly kind to them as long as they knew their place (ladies didn’t get the best jobs like animation).

On Christmas Eve, 1939, when everyone was working late to get Pinocchio (pictured right below) finished, he totally ignored the men, whilst giving out presents to the women!

 Walt Disney Leadership

6. Tough disciplinarian

Despite his outward charm, there was a tough, dark side to this character, shown by his:

  • pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views,
  • uncontrollable temper
  • hatred of trade unions, which led to a strike in 1941 (winning his animators the right to join their trade union, much to his disgust).

He fired men for swearing in front of women and banned:

  • alcohol (although he drank secretly in his office) and
  • facial hair (despite his pencil moustache).


7. Obsession with work

He ate, slept and breathed movies, immersing himself in his characters and sleeping at work to get away from his baby daughter’s all night crying!

“I love Mickey Mouse more than any women I have ever known”, he said.


8. Optimism

He always thought the future was full of opportunities and hope.

“Believe in the future”, he said.


9. Persistence and determination

He saw his films to completion, despite big artistic and financial problems (e.g. Snow White, took three years to make).

He also had to overcome:Walt Disney Leadership

  • frequent nervous exhaustion and depression.
  • the psychological scars of his childhood.

His father viciously beat him, and he couldn’t understand why his mother (pictured right with Walt) let him do it.

He spent a lifetime looking for his real mother, because he feared he was illegitimate and adopted.

But he said that all his troubles:

  • gave him moral strength.
  • made him a better person.

 Walt Disney Leadership

10. Lifelong learning

Charlie Chaplin (pictured right in the film City Lights) was his big hero as a child, and he learned much from his films.

Disney also learned from his mistakes, came up with better ideas and put them into action.

New ideas, not money, excited him.



Key quotes on vision and objectives

All our dreams come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.

Always remember this thing was started with a dream and a mouse.


Key quote on buyer behaviour

People spend money when they feel good.


Key quote on work

It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.

Fancy being remembered around the world for the invention of a mouse!.


Key quote on leadership

Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is co-ordinating those who work for me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.


Key quote on success

 I do not like to repeat successes, I like to go on to other things.


Key quote on motivation

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.


Key quote on innovation

Get a good idea and stay with it. Do it, and work at it until it’s done right.

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