Robert Iger, CEO of Walt Disney company shares his experience of transforming Disney to one of the most valuable companies and also shares insights on ethics, work culture and management. He has integrated countless invaluable lessons into the beautiful narrative of his career.
I’ve noted down his key insights and lessons mentioned throughout the book. But his book is a must read for his candid story telling.
These are the ten principles that strike Robert as necessary to true leadership.
1. Optimism. One of the most important qualities of a good leader is optimism, a pragmatic enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Even in the face of difficult choices and less than ideal outcomes, an optimistic leader does not yield to pessimism. Simply put, people are not motivated or energized by pessimists.
2. Courage. The foundation of risk-taking is courage, and in ever-changing, disrupted businesses, risk-taking is essential, innovation is vital, and true innovation occurs only when people have courage. This is true of acquisitions, investments, and capital allocations, and it particularly applies to creative decisions. Fear of failure destroys creativity.
3. Focus. Allocating time, energy, and resources to the strategies, problems, and projects that are of highest importance and value is extremely important, and it’s imperative to communicate your priorities clearly and often.
4. Decisiveness. All decisions, no matter how difficult, can and should be made in a timely way. Leaders must encourage a diversity of opinion balanced with the need to make and implement decisions. Chronic indecision is not only inefficient and counterproductive, but it is deeply corrosive to morale.
5. Curiosity. A deep and abiding curiosity enables the discovery of new people, places, and ideas, as well as an awareness and an understanding of the marketplace and its changing dynamics. The path to innovation begins with curiosity.
6. Fairness. Strong leadership embodies the fair and decent treatment of people. Empathy is essential, as is accessibility. People committing honest mistakes deserve second chances, and judging people too harshly generates fear and anxiety, which discourage communication and innovation. Nothing is worse to an organization than a culture of fear.
7. Thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness is one of the most underrated elements of good leadership. It is the process of gaining knowledge, so an opinion rendered or decision made is more credible and more likely to be correct. It’s simply about taking the time to develop informed opinions.
8. Authenticity. Be genuine. Be honest. Don’t fake anything. Truth and authenticity breed respect and trust.
9. The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection. This doesn’t mean perfectionism at all costs, but it does mean a refusal to accept mediocrity or make excuses for something being “good enough.” If you believe that something can be made better, put in the effort to do it. If you’re in the business of making things, be in the business of making things great.
10. Integrity. Nothing is more important than the quality and integrity of an organization’s people and its product. A company’s success depends on setting high ethical standards for all things, big and small. Another way of saying this is: The way you do anything is the way you do everything.
Chapter 1 – Starting at the Bottom
First mentor in his career was Roone, who taught him the dictum that has guided him in every job he has held: Innovate or die, and there’s no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new or untested.
His mantra was simple: “Do what you need to do to make it better.” Of all the things Iger learnt from Roone, this is what shaped him the most. Iger refers this as “the relentless pursuit of perfection.”
it’s about creating an environment in which you refuse to accept mediocrity. You instinctively push back against the urge to say There’s not enough time, or I don’t have the energy, or This requires a difficult conversation I don’t want to have, or any of the many other ways we can convince ourselves that “good enough” is good enough.
If Roone asked you to do something, you were expected to exhaust every possible method to accomplish it. If you came back and said you tried and it couldn’t be done, he’d just tell you, “Find another way.”
“It’s a delicate thing, finding the balance between demanding that your people perform and not instilling a fear of failure in them. Most of us who worked for Roone wanted to live up to his standards, but we also knew that he had no patience for excuses and that he could easily turn on anyone, in his singularly cutting, somewhat cruel, way, if he felt we weren’t performing to his satisfaction.”
“In your work, in your life, you’ll be more respected and trusted by the people around you if you honestly own up to your mistakes. It’s impossible not to make them; but it is possible to acknowledge them, learn from them, and set an example that it’s okay to get things wrong sometimes. What’s not okay is to undermine others by lying about something or covering your own ass first.”
“Be decent to people. Treat everyone with fairness and empathy. This doesn’t mean that you lower your expectations or convey the message that mistakes don’t matter. It means that you create an environment where people know you’ll hear them out, that you’re emotionally consistent and fair-minded, and that they’ll be given second chances for honest mistakes. (If they don’t own up to their mistakes, or if they blame someone else, or if the mistake is the result of some unethical behavior, that’s a different story, and something that shouldn’t be tolerated.)”
Excellence and fairness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Strive for perfection but always be aware of the pitfalls of caring only about the product and never the people
“when I was given the chance to lead, I was instinctively aware of both the need to strive for perfection and the pitfalls of caring only about the product and never the people.”
Chapter 2 – Betting on Talent
True integrity—a sense of knowing who you are and being guided by your own clear sense of right and wrong—is a kind of secret leadership weapon. If you trust your own instincts and treat people with respect, the company will come to represent the values you live by.
“My instinct throughout my career has always been to say yes to every opportunity. In part this is just garden-variety ambition. I wanted to move up and learn and do more, and I wasn’t going to forgo any chance to do that, but I also wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing things that I was unfamiliar with.”
Value ability more than experience, and put people in roles that require more of them than they know they have in them.
Chapter 3 : Know what you don’t know (and trust in what you do)
The first rule is not to fake anything. You have to be humble, and you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not or to know something you don’t. You’re also in a position of leadership, though, so you can’t let humility prevent you from leading. It’s a fine line, and something I preach today. You have to ask the questions you need to ask, admit without apology what you don’t understand, and do the work to learn what you need to learn as quickly as you can. There’s nothing less confidence-inspiring than a person faking a knowledge they don’t possess. True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.
Managing creative processes starts with the understanding that it’s not a science—everything is subjective; there is often no right or wrong. The passion it takes to create something is powerful, and most creators are understandably sensitive when their vision or execution is questioned.
Delicate balance is required between management being responsible for the financial performance of any creative work and, in exercising that responsibility, being careful not to encroach on the creative processes in harmful and counterproductive ways. Empathy is a prerequisite to the sound management of creativity, and respect is critical.
Don’t start negatively, and don’t start small. People will often focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty.
“I didn’t want to be in the business of playing it safe. I wanted to be in the business of creating possibilities for greatness. Of all the lessons I learned in my first year running prime time at ABC, the acceptance that creativity isn’t a science was the most profound. I became comfortable with failure—not with lack of effort, but with the fact that if you want innovation, you need to grant permission to fail.
Don’t be in the business of playing it safe. Be in the business of creating possibilities for greatness.
Chapter 4 – Enter Disney
Don’t let ambition get ahead of opportunity. By fixating on a future job or project, you become impatient with where you are. You don’t tend enough to the responsibilities you do have, and so ambition can become counterproductive. It’s important to know how to find the balance—do the job you have well; be patient; look for opportunities to pitch in and expand and grow; and make yourself one of the people, through attitude and energy and focus, whom your bosses feel they have to turn to when an opportunity arises.
My former boss Dan Burke once handed me a note that said: “Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year!” He was telling me not to invest in small projects that would sap my and the company’s resources and not give much back. I still have that note in my desk, and I use it when talking to our executives about what to pursue and where to put their energy.
Managing your own time and respecting others’ time is one of the most vital things to do as a manager,
When the people at the top of a company have a dysfunctional relationship, there’s no way that the rest of the company can be functional. It’s like having two parents who fight all the time. The kids know, and they start to reflect the animosity back onto the parents and at each other.
Chapter 5 – Second in Line
As a leader, if you don’t do the work, the people around you are going to know, and you’ll lose their respect fast. You have to be attentive. You often have to sit through meetings that, if given the choice, you might choose not to sit through. You have to listen to other people’s problems and help find solutions. It’s all part of the job.
As a leader, you should want those around you to be eager to rise up and take on more responsibility, as long as dreaming about the job they want doesn’t distract them from the job they have. You can’t let ambition get too far ahead of opportunity.
It’s important to know how to find the balance—do the job you have well; be patient; look for opportunities to pitch in and expand and grow; and make yourself one of the people, through attitude and energy and focus, that your bosses feel they have to turn to when an opportunity arises. Conversely, if you’re a boss, these are the people to nurture—not the ones who are clamoring for promotions and complaining about not being utilized enough but the ones who are proving themselves to be indispensable day in and day out.
We all want to believe we’re indispensable. You have to be self-aware enough that you don’t cling to the notion that you are the only person who can do this job. At its essence, good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to step into your shoes—giving them access to your own decision-making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve, and sometimes being honest with them about why they’re not ready for the next step up.
It’s a tricky thing, moving people over to your side and enlisting their enthusiastic engagement. Sometimes it’s worth talking through their reservations and patiently responding to their concerns. Other times you simply need to communicate that you’re the boss and you want this done. It’s not that one approach is “nice” and the other isn’t. It’s just that one is more direct and nonnegotiable. It really comes down to what you believe is right for the moment—when a more democratic approach is useful both in getting to the best outcome and in building morale, and when you have enough certainty in your opinion that you’re willing to be an autocrat even in the face of disagreement.
A company’s reputation is the sum total of the actions of its people and the quality of its products. You have to demand integrity from your people and your products at all times.
Chapter 6 – Good things can happen
Michel would say, “Micromanaging is underrated.” I tend to agree with him, but to a point. Thanks to my years working for Roone Arledge, I didn’t need to be convinced that the success or failure of something so often comes down to the details. Michael often saw things that other people didn’t see, and then he demanded that they be made better. That was the source of so much of his and the company’s success, and I had immense respect for Michael’s tendency to sweat the details. It showed how much he cared, and it made a difference. He understood that “great” is often a collection of very small things, and he helped me appreciate that even more deeply.
Michael had plenty of valid reasons to be pessimistic, but as a leader you can’t communicate that pessimism to the people around you. It’s ruinous to morale. It saps energy and inspiration. Decisions get made from a protective, defensive posture.
Too often, we lead from a place of fear rather than courage, stubbornly trying to build a bulwark to protect old models that can’t possibly survive the sea change that is under way. It’s hard to look at your current models, sometimes even ones that are profitable in the moment, and make a decision to undermine them in order to face the change that’s coming. If you walk up and down the halls constantly telling people “the sky is falling,” a sense of doom and gloom will, over time, permeate the company. You can’t communicate pessimism to the people around you. It’s ruinous to morale. No one wants to follow a pessimist.
Pessimism leads to paranoia, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to risk aversion. Optimism emerges from faith in yourself and in the people who work for you. It’s not about saying things are good when they’re not, and it’s not about conveying some blind faith that “things will work out.” It’s about believing in your and others’ abilities.
People sometimes shy away from big swings because they build a case against trying something before they even step up to the plate. Long shots aren’t usually as long as they seem. With enough thoughtfulness and commitment, the boldest ideas can be executed.
Chapter 7 – It’s about the Future
A company’s culture is shaped by a lot of things, but this is one of the most important—you have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly.
You can do a lot for the morale of the people around you (and therefore the people around them) just by taking the guesswork out of their day-to-day life. A CEO must provide the company and its senior team with a road map. A lot of work is complex and requires intense amounts of focus and energy, but this kind of messaging is fairly simple: This is where we want to be. This is how we’re going to get there. Once those things are laid out simply, so many decisions become easier to make, and the overall anxiety of an entire organization is lowered.
Technological advancements will eventually make older business models obsolete. You can either bemoan that and try with all your might to protect the status quo, or you can work hard to understand and embrace it with more enthusiasm and creativity than your competitors.
It should be about the future, not the past.
It’s easy to be optimistic when everyone is telling you you’re great. It’s much harder, and much more necessary, when your sense of yourself is on the line.
Don’t let your ego get in the way of making the best possible decision. I was stung when Roy and Stanley sued the board for choosing me as CEO, and I certainly could have gone to battle with them and prevailed, but it all would have come at a huge cost to the company and been a giant distraction from what really mattered. My job was to set our company on a new path, and the first step was to defuse this unnecessary struggle. The easiest and most productive way to do that was to recognize that what Roy needed, ultimately, was to feel respected. That was precious to him, and it cost me and the company so little.
A little respect goes a long way, and the absence of it is often very costly. Over the next few years, as we made the major acquisitions that redefined and revitalized the company, this simple, seemingly trite idea was as important as all of the data-crunching in the world: If you approach and engage people with respect and empathy, the seemingly impossible can become real.
Chapter 9 – Disney-Pixar and a new path to the Future
PEOPLE SOMETIMES SHY AWAY from taking big swings because they assess the odds and build a case against trying something before they even take the first step. One of the things I’ve always instinctively felt—and something that was greatly reinforced working for people like Roone and Michael—is that long shots aren’t usually as long as they seem. Roone and Michael both believed in their own power and in the ability of their organizations to make things happen—that with enough energy and thoughtfulness and commitment, even the boldest ideas could be executed.
You have to do the homework. You have to be prepared. You certainly can’t make a major acquisition, for example, without building the necessary models to help you determine whether a deal is the right one. But you also have to recognize that there is never 100 percent certainty. No matter how much data you’ve been given, it’s still, ultimately, a risk, and the decision to take that risk or not comes down to one person’s instinct.
If something doesn’t feel right to you, it won’t be right for you.
A lot of companies acquire others without much sensitivity toward what they’re really buying. They think they’re getting physical assets or manufacturing assets or intellectual property (in some industries, that’s more true than others). But usually what they’re really acquiring is people. In a creative business, that’s where the value lies.
Chapter 10 – Marvel and Massive Risks that make perfect sense
As a leader, you are the embodiment of that company. What that means is this: Your values—your sense of integrity and decency and honesty, the way you comport yourself in the world—are a stand-in for the values of the company. You can be the head of a seven-person organization or a quarter-million-person organization, and the same truth holds: what people think of you is what they’ll think of your company.
FIRING PEOPLE, OR taking responsibility away from them, is arguably the most difficult thing you have to do as a boss. There have been several times when I’ve had to deliver bad news to accomplished people, some of whom were friends, and some of whom had been unable to flourish in positions that I had put them in. There’s no good playbook for how to fire someone, though I have my own internal set of rules. 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 making a decision 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. I normally say something along the lines of: “I’ve asked you to come in here for a difficult reason.” And then I try to be as direct about the issue as possible, explaining clearly and concisely what wasn’t working and why I didn’t think it was going to change. I emphasize that it was a tough decision to make, and that I understand that it’s much harder on them. There’s a kind of euphemistic corporate language that is often deployed in those situations, and it has always struck me as offensive. There’s no way for the conversation not to be painful, but at least it can be honest, and in being honest there is at least a chance for the person on the receiving end to understand why it’s happening and eventually move on, even if they walk out of the room angry as hell.
Surround yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do. You can’t always predict who will have ethical lapses or reveal a side of themselves you never suspected was there. In the worst cases, you will have to deal with acts that reflect badly on the company and demand censure. That’s an unavoidable part of the job, but you have to demand honesty and integrity from everyone, and when there’s a lapse you have to deal with it immediately.
Chapter 11 – Star Wars
In any negotiation, be clear about where you stand from the beginning. There’s no short-term gain that’s worth the long-term erosion of trust that occurs when you go back on the expectation you created early on.
Projecting your anxiety onto your team is counterproductive. It’s subtle, but there’s a difference between communicating that you share their stress—that you’re in it with them—and communicating that you need them to deliver in order to alleviate your stress.
Most deals are personal. This is even more true if you’re negotiating with someone over something he or she has created. You have to know what you want out of any deal, but to get there you also need be aware of what’s at stake for the other person.
If you’re in the business of making something, be in the business of making something great.
Chapter 12 – If you don’t Innovate, You Die
At some point over the years, I referred to a concept I called “management by press release”—meaning that if I say something with great conviction to the outside world, it tends to resonate powerfully inside our company.
The decision to disrupt a business model that is working for you requires no small amount of courage. It means intentionally taking on short-term losses in the hope that a long-term risk will pay off. Routines and priorities get disrupted. Traditional ways of doing business get slowly marginalized and eroded—and start to lose money—as a new model takes over. That’s a big ask, in terms of a company’s culture and mindset. When you do it, you’re saying to people who for their entire careers have been compensated based on the success of their traditional business: “Don’t worry about that too much anymore. Worry about this instead.” But this isn’t profitable yet, and won’t be for a while. Deal with this kind of uncertainty by going back to basics: Lay out your strategic priorities clearly. Remain optimistic in the face of the unknown. And be accessible and fair-minded to people whose work lives are being thrown into disarray.
Chap 14 – Core Values
it’s not always good for one person to have too much power for too long. Even when a CEO is working productively and effectively, it’s important for a company to have change at the top. I don’t know if other CEOs agree with this, but I’ve noticed that you can accumulate so much power in a job that it becomes harder to keep a check on how you wield it. Little things can start to shift. Your confidence can easily tip over into overconfidence and become a liability. You can start to feel that you’ve heard every idea, and so you become impatient and dismissive of others’ opinions. It’s not intentional, it just comes with the territory. You have to make a conscious effort to listen, to pay attention to the multitude of opinions. I’ve raised the issue with the executives I work most closely with as a kind of safeguard. “If you notice me being too dismissive or impatient, you need to tell me.” They’ve had to on occasion, but I hope not too often.
I needed to come up with a plan for the future in order to lead the company. I believed that quality would matter most. I believed we needed to embrace technology and disruption rather than fear it. I believed that expanding into new markets would be vital. I had no real idea, though, especially then, where this journey would take me.
You have to approach your work and life with a sense of genuine humility. The success I’ve enjoyed has been due in part to my own efforts, but it’s also been due to so much beyond me, the efforts and support and examples of so many people, and to twists of fate beyond my control.
Hold on to your awareness of yourself, even as the world tells you how important and powerful you are. The moment you start to believe it all too much, the moment you look at yourself in the mirror and see a title emblazoned on your forehead, you’ve lost your way.