How The Walt Disney Company Views Leadership

There are many stories about how Walt Disney created one of the world’s iconic entertainment brands. One that veteran Disney employee Steven Tinn likes to tell involves Disney’s first test ride on the Jungle Cruise ride that opened at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in 1971.

After stepping off the ride, in which guests ride through a “jungle” on small boats, a senior manager asked Disney how he liked it. Not very much, it turned out. The ride was supposed to take seven minutes, but Disney had timed it at three-and-a-half. He complained that he felt like he’d seen the beginning and end of a movie but had been rushed through the middle—that he hadn’t been told the whole story. And that wasn’t the experience Disney was looking to offer his guests.

After allowing Disney to explain which story elements needed to be illuminated in the ride, the senior manager spent weeks training the cast to deliver the full experience Disney wanted. When Disney repeated his test ride several weeks later, he rode not on one of its boats, or two, but on all seven—and liked what he saw. He left with two thumbs up for the employee who’d engineered the transformation.

That story, Tinn says, illustrates Disney’s commitment to quality and consistency—and to the experience of the customer.

Tinn is a senior business facilitator with the Disney Institute, an arm of The Walt Disney Company that delivers leadership training to other companies, organizations and individuals interested in Disney’s approach to leadership. Repeating the Jungle Cruise story during a presentation at the 2018 SVIA Spring Seminar in Orlando, Tinn explained that The Walt Disney Company believes its business results are driven by a strategic focus on business functions and opportunities that other companies too often overlook. Put less formally, “We have learned to be intentional where others may be unintentional,” Tinn said. By way of illustration, he cited some of the myriad details that went into the development of the Cars Land area of Disney California Adventure in Anaheim, right down to the hours of training given to each “cast member” so that they know how to think, and talk, like someone who lives in a town whose inhabitants are cars.

A second fundamental tenet of Disney’s approach to management, Tinn said, holds that “leaders establish, operationalize and sustain the values and vision by which their organizations thrive.” The point, Tinn said, is that contrary to what the dictionary says, leadership isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. Those who hold themselves out as leaders, he said, have to take action; they have to “operationalize and sustain” their company’s vision and values. And they have to instill in every employee a common purpose.

Importantly, Tinn added, leadership isn’t reserved for those who hold leadership roles.

“Disney believes that every single great thing that has ever happened at this company is based on fantastic leaders,” Tinn said. “But we don’t believe that they always came from people who were leading people. We believe that you have a sphere of influence in the work that you do, whether you’re scooping popcorn, whether you’re a custodial host, whether you’re leading those teams, whether you’re an individual contributor. We ask our leaders all the time, ‘Are you engaging your teams in this way? Are you helping them understand that they are the subject matter expert, they have a lot that they can bring, that they are the ones that can really, in their own sphere of influence, do something bigger and greater?’”

Over time, Tinn said, the vision of Disney’s top leaders has varied as the company has evolved. Walt Disney started by wanting to make animated films, then to improve them by adding color and sound, and then to create a full-length animated feature. Later, he wanted to bring those movies and the stories they told to life in a way that theater owners couldn’t or wouldn’t, which led him to develop his eponymous theme parks.

A few CEOs later, Michael Eisner focused on expanding the company to include more resort hotels and theme parks, as well as cruise ships and international destinations. Today, Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger continues to build on that vision, Tinn said, with the added goal of making Disney the most admired company in the world. But both Eisner and Iger, he said, have sought to stay true to Walt Disney’s values, which put people and their happiness—customers and employees alike—first.

To be sure, Tinn concluded, leadership isn’t easy. But communicating a company’s vision and values in ways that resonate with the intended audience can help. “The more a vision can be expressed in a vivid, imaginative way, the more it will motivate people to action in the present,” Tinn said. “Make sure you choose your words carefully, so that they make an impact.”