The gift of selfishness: Walt Disney’s Leadership

DSC 0059 150x150 The gift of selfishness: Walt Disneys LeadershipFor over half a century, Disney has made childhood wonder their stock in trade.  The very name “Disney” has come to conjure up the wide-eyed smiling faces of children.  And, undeniably, that reputation is well deserved.  Unlike many other companies, Disney retains its focus on family and on wonder, trying to interpret the magic and wonder of a child’s view of the world and to convince people of all ages that wonder has not been wiped away by time, modernity, and pragmatism.

But, equally undeniable is another fact – that wonder and magic is generated by the Walt Disney Company.  There is a mighty corporate machine behind the magic, with wheels spinning out the wonders, and an eye on the bottom line. Certainly the mighty company keeps its eye on customer service, public image, and social responsibility far more than many of its contemporaries, but it is unavoidably a “company” – with all the concerns, stockholders, and fiscal considerations of any mega corporation.

Somewhere between those two facts, his ghost casting a long shadow across both, stands Walt Disney, founder, visionary, and icon of the company.  Walt, using his first name to delineate him from the company that he founded, has been the subject of books, documentaries, speculation, and even urban legend.  He is called a genius, a fascist, a great American; his face and his legend have made an indelible mark on popular culture.  Even John Hammond, Crichton’s fictional founder of Jurassic Park owes much to the memory of Disney.  Walt Disney was a giant; he was, in the terminology of leadership theory – a great man.

WaltPLaza 150x150 The gift of selfishness: Walt Disneys LeadershipIn the past two decades, the “Great Man Theory” of leadership – the idea that some elusive combination of personality and opportunity forges dynamic, transformative leaders – fell out of favor.  Replaced by behaviorist assertions that leaders are trained, not born, the idea of these men who have some innate greatness fell by the wayside, relegated to a sort of simplistic mythology.  But that casual denigration is fading; in a 1996 article, David Cawthon suggests that dismissal of the Great Man theory is unrealistic.  Situation, experience, and opportunity are undeniable factors, but there are, as something instinctive has always told us, great men.  There are those who have some special vision, some determination which attracts others, inspires them, and makes them willing to support these great leaders.

Walt Disney stands among those ranks; that pale face, thin moustache, and wide smile represent the man who launched a multi-billion dollar empire.  And that, perhaps, is why I was so jarred by Imagineer Tony Baxter’s comments about Walt Disney as the perpetual 12 year old.

TWalt Disney66 150x150 The gift of selfishness: Walt Disneys Leadershiphe comments were a part of a leadership seminar, and they were made in the context of business – demonstrating the importance of enjoying a product, not merely targeting it.  And yet, as I finished listening to the interview and moved on to other things, one apparent anomaly kept nagging at me.  Walt Disney was a great leader, a great man; wasn’t there an inherent conflict between great leadership and being a perpetual 12 year old?

I’ve read a good bit about Walt Disney; I know about his money problems, his curmudgeonly behavior, his quirky supervision of his employees, and his sometimes seemingly impossible demands.  Yet his power as a visionary and leader whose influence lasted decades beyond his death and still resonates today is undeniable. “We compartmentalize,” I rationalized to myself. “Disney was a 12 year old at some times, and a great, inspirational leader at others.”

smallgirl 111x300 The gift of selfishness: Walt Disneys LeadershipAnd then, unexpectedly, I stumbled across a truth that had been there all along.  There was no need for the rationalization of compartmentalizing. Walt Disney’s childishness was not a contradiction to his status as a great man – it was an inherent part of it.  In fact, the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that childishness was an indelible part of being a great man, not for the characteristics society so often promotes as associated with children, but for a host of less idealized reasons.

At the end of his classic tale of childhood adventure, J. M. Barrie wrote that the cycle of Peter Pan would continue “so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”  Barrie knew a truth that few today are as willing to acknowledge.  Children are wonderful, innocent, and gay – they are also heartless, selfish, and willing to accept our instinctive need to nurture and please them.  Those things sound horrid in the context of modern political correctness, but they are inherent parts of childhood, and of great men as well.

Having studied leadership theory and even taught training courses on leadership and teamwork, I was always fascinated by stories of Walt Disney’s leadership. With a perverse delight, I read Bill Peet’s accounts of working at the Disney company and Bob Thomas’s stories of Walt’s late night visits to the animation department where he would pull discarded sketches out of trash cans.  Here was a man who violated every “rule” that modern theorists applied to leadership.  Here was a man who was aggressively not a “highly effective person.” Yet here was a man who inspired creativity, loyalty, and legacy.  I always loved that contradiction in Walt Disney, but it was not until the element of childishness snapped into the picture that I finally understood.

ryman1 The gift of selfishness: Walt Disneys Leadership

Ryman's sketch

Take, for example, Jim Korkis remarkable re-telling of Herb Ryman’s legendary 42-hour sketch of the Disneyland concept. After Ryman told Walt he would not do the drawing because the time constraint wouldn’t let him create the needed quality, Walt “just turned his face to Herb, and Herb could see Walt’s eyes tearing up, and Walt says, ‘will you do it if I stay with you while you’re doing it?’” In that one moment, the Great Man and the child come together.  Walt Disney, the inspired leader with a vision stands superimposed over the child who wants his way, and genuinely believes, without hesitation, that his presence will make things work.  Most of us would have been overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and its practical impossibility – a complete overview inspiring and professional enough to sell a multi-million dollar project in two days? Impossible.  But Walt Disney was, as Thomas pointed out, always 12.  He saw the goal, ignored the impracticality, and still had the childish, unblinking faith in his own importance to believe that his presence would vanquish the improbability of success and make things work.

At some point in our lives, most of us stop being the heroes in the stories that we tell ourselves.  I don’t think great men ever fall out of that role in their own imaginations.  That makes them difficult, eccentric, innocent in a way that sometimes seems boorishly naïve, and heartless, because, unlike the rest of us, they don’t doubt that they’re worth it.  In retrospect, I think that’s the key to my mental image of Walt Disney.  Curmudgeon, visionary, slave driver, miracle maker, workaholic, lover of beauty – how do those things come together? Through the childishness, the ability to find joy, to be innocently heartless, and the unflinching inability to see anything as impossible – only, perhaps, improbable.

We may not all be great men, but perhaps understanding and embracing that childishness, not only in the willingness to do things that society labels “childish” but also ignoring social norms, being willing to inconvenience others for something we really believe, and even having the occasional courage to challenge the word “impossible” may change our lives.  Walt Disney’s legacy is one of childhood wonder, but it is not just in creating a company that uses that idea as its stock in trade.  His legacy is in leaving behind a powerful lesson – greatness is not about theory; it is about perspective.  So here’s to Walt – gay and innocent and heartless.  May his shadow stretch on, sharing those qualities with the rest of us.

With thanks to

WDW Radio Show #179 with Lou Mongello and Jim Korkis

Interview with Tony Baxter by Dave Parfitt

Cawthon, David L. “Leadership: The Great Man Theory Revisited.”

 The gift of selfishness: Walt Disneys Leadership

Meet Wendy Neeld


A princess by determination, Wendy Neeld has a long standing passion for Disney and the wonder, fantasy, and magic it represents. A central Florida resident, she visits Walt Disney World regularly, and loves not only the parks but the theming and history of Disney itself. A professor of humanities by day, she loves to share culture, history, and wonder with others. Communicating those things in written form is her joy and her goal in writing and publishing on the internet.

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