The Importance of Optimism: Leadership Lessons from Walt Disney

December 12, 2013 by Jeff James, Vice President & General Manager, Disney Institute


Walt Disney knew that, particularly in times of significant change, innovation stems from optimism. Today, when we ask people what words they use to describe Walt Disney, "innovator” and “optimistic” are always on the list. 

What traits or characteristics enabled Walt to be such an innovator? How does that apply to business today? 

The recent HBR article by Daniel Goleman, The Focused Leader, adds a fresh perspective we can apply to Walt Disney’s leadership examples. 

One such story is set on a late winter evening in 1928 at Union Station in New York City. Walt Disney is about to begin the three-day trip back home to Hollywood.  Before he departs, he sends a telegram to his business partner, his older brother, Roy.  It reads: 


What the telegram did not say was that Walt Disney had just lost … everything.  He had gone to New York to negotiate a new contract for distribution of his cartoons starring a hit character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  Walt arrived to learn that his distributor, who held the rights to Oswald, had hired away most of the Disney animators to start a new studio. Walt was left with nothing: no product, no staff, no contract, and no income. Yet he sent his telegram, boarded his train, and headed west.  He had a three day journey ahead of him.  Three days, and then he would have to face Roy and tell him the truth.

Think about that for a moment.  What would you do if you found yourself in that situation?

Here’s what Walt did: He got out his sketchbook and created a character, one full of whimsy and warmth. This new character had the slapstick humor that had made Oswald so famous.  But he had more than that. This new character had a heart. He had a soul. And this new one was not a rabbit. He was a mouse. Later that same year, Mickey Mouse starred in “Steamboat Willy,” the world’s first cartoon with fully synchronized sound.  And by the spring of 1929, only one year later, Mickey was the number-one cartoon character in the world.

That was 81 years ago.  The Walt Disney Company that we know today can trace its heritage, its brand and its culture back to what could easily have been a sad and lonely train ride in 1928. But rather than focusing on his loss, Walt chose to face the crush of circumstance with an overwhelmingly positive attitude. 

How valuable is optimism? According to Goleman, "pessimism narrows our focus, whereas positive emotions widen our attention and our receptiveness to the new and unexpected." Therefore, if we want to be more innovative, we should be more optimistic. Walt’s leadership legacy shows the importance of optimism for an individual and for an organization.

 What role does optimism play in your personal leadership journey? How can optimism transform your workplace? 


Stay tuned for more “Leadership Lessons from Walt Disney” on Talking Point.


Posted in Leadership Excellence | Tagged Leadership, Leadership Training and Development, Leadership Lessons, Leadership Training, Leadership Skills, Leadership Consulting, Walt Disney, Jeff James | 0 Comments

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