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Letting Go: Leadership Lessons from Walt Disney

October 31, 2013 by Bruce Jones, Programming Director, Disney Institute

Letting Go: Leadership Lessons from Walt Disney

If letting go is the imperative, what makes a team or organization "able to be delegated to?"

It is the leaders role of establishing, operationalizing, and sustaining the values and vision by which their organizations thrive. The clarity of those two things – vision and values - enables teams and individuals to function more autonomously and generate the additional benefit to which the author refers.

How do we know this? Walt was an entrepreneur and he understood that his ability to be successful and make his big dreams come true would be dependent on his ability to get work done through others. An outstanding example of how he was able to do this lives on in this story, as told by Ken Anderson, one of the animators assigned to work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

As you read this brief story, think about what Walt did that enabled this team to spend three-plus years in production on what is probably still the benchmark animated feature film of all time:

Ken Anderson:

Walt gave us fifty cents each in the afternoon and he said, “Why don’t you go get yourself a dinner and come back and be back here at eight o’clock.  Be back on the soundstage.”  So we went and had this wonderful dinner—you could have a wonderful dinner for thirty-five cents.  And came back to the confines of the studio and he walked in, still not knowing what the hell it was all about.  Walked into this soundstage that was all dark so we could save money.  Just the light on the floor right in front of the seats.  And then behind us, as the tiers of seats, of these seats rose up, there was these, was this projection booth.

So we, about forty of us sat there, and we got all settled and Walt was talking to the guys in the front.  And he came down the front of the thing and said, ‘I’m gonna tell you a story.’ He says, ‘Been with me all my life.’  He said, ‘I’ve lived it.’  He started in and told the story of Snow White better than we put it on the screen.

He spent from 8:00 to 11:30, and he portrayed all the parts.  He had to go forward and back and forward and back and the cutting didn’t matter, in order to tell it all and get it all in.  But he became even the Queen, he became the Huntsman, he became the dwarves, he became Snow White.

And the guy changed.  He sat right in front of our eyes and here comes Walt Disney changing.  Now there’s an enormous talent as an actor; he could really sell things.  And he sold the story to us in such a way that we couldn’t believe our ears.

Specifically, what did Walt do? He told stories rather than presented strategies; he invested a significant amount of time personally sharing his vision with his team; he bought the team dinner, knowing they were staying late that evening.

Now, ask yourself, "Is there anything Walt did, that I could not do as a leader?" Probably not. Walt was a role model, and demonstrated a leadership principle in which we believe: The more a vision can be expressed in a vivid, imaginative way, the more it will motivate people to action in the present.

This thought comes full circle from Walt to present-day Company CEO Bob Iger, who says, "Ninety-five percent of the decisions made at the company are made by other people."

Now that is a huge opportunity for letting go…and for developing great leaders. Who is making all the decisions in your organization?



Posted in Leadership Excellence | Tagged Leadership, Walt Disney, Leadership Skills, Leadership Team, Leadership Styles, Leadership Models | 2 Comments


2 Responses to Letting Go: Leadership Lessons from Walt Disney

  • George says:

    on November 01, 2013

    What a great article. Thank you for the insight.


  • Lou says:

    on November 04, 2013

    These questions are excellent! Very thought-provoking and are an ideal way for leaders to “reboot” their skills. Not only should these be reviewed on a yearly basis regarding an individual’s skills, but these questions can be adjusted and used at the beginning of any new project or changes occurring in the organization. Thanks!


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