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Leadership Lessons From Walt Disney: Choose Optimism

May 17, 2016 by Bruce Jones, Senior Programming Director, Disney Institute

“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life…”
–Walt Disney

Recently, we came across an interesting Inc. article about the power of optimism: “Want to Be Happier? Ask Yourself This Question Every Morning.” In the article, the author discusses the power of positive thinking and cites what Albert Einstein referred to as “the most important question we can ask ourselves each morning.” The author also offered four ways we can start our days more positively.

The story reminds us of Walt Disney, and how he, too, was known for embracing optimism in his personal actions and leadership style. Even today, when we ask participants in our Disney Institute training courses what words they would use to describe Walt Disney, “creative,” "innovative” and “optimistic” are always on the list.

In fact, it was Walt Disney’s optimism that helped him overcome one of his first and potentially greatest business challenges.

As the story goes, it was 1928 at Union Station in New York City. Walt Disney had just concluded business meetings there and was about to board a train for the three-day journey back home to California. Before departing, he sent a telegram to his older brother and business partner, Roy. It read: “Don’t worry, everything okay, will give details when I arrive.”

What the telegram did not say was that Walt had essentially just lost everything. He was in New York to negotiate a new contract for distribution of his cartoons featuring his hit character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Upon arrival, Walt found that his distributor, who held the rights to Oswald, had hired away most of Disney’s animators to start a new studio and produce the cartoons without Walt. 

With no contract, no income, no product, and no animators —Walt sent the telegram, boarded his train, and headed west with three days to figure out what and how to tell Roy. But rather than brood the entire time, Walt did the opposite. He took out his sketchbook and got right back to work, creating an entirely new character who not only had the slapstick humor that had made Oswald so famous; he had a heart, and a soul, and he was a mouse! 

Later that same year, Walt’s new character, Mickey Mouse, starred in “Steamboat Willy,” the world’s first cartoon with fully synchronized sound. And, by the spring of 1929, Mickey had become the world’s foremost cartoon character.

Today, the Walt Disney Company that we know can trace its legacy back to what could easily have been a sad and demoralizing train ride in 1928. With this legacy comes responsibility, and so leaders at all levels of the company continually share this story and its important lesson—rather than focus on what he had just lost, Walt chose to face the circumstance with a positive attitude. 

The value of optimism to our daily lives should not be underestimated. As weve previously written about here on our blog, optimism plays a huge part in the formula for leadership success. According to the Inc. article, there are a whole host of benefits to thinking positively and embracing optimism. It “impacts your attitude throughout the day” and “if you want to be your own personal best, thinking positive first thing in the morning is the way to get there.”

Beyond the personal benefits, embracing optimism as a leader can also have a dramatic effect on an entire organization. As we teach business professionals in our training course, Disney’s Approach to Leadership Excellence, every leader is telling a story about what he or she values in the way they behave. When leaders choose to be positive in the face of intense adversity, the story tends to be widely shared, and often repeated.

Walt Disney’s leadership legacy teaches us all that, while there are many qualities of great leadership, optimism is certainly one that can make a dramatic and lasting impact.

Think about it: What role does optimism play in your personal leadership style? How can optimism help make you a more effective leader?


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Posted in Leadership Excellence | Tagged Leadership, Leadership Excellence, Leadership Style, Leadership Training, Optimism, Positive Thinking, Optimistic Leadership, Leadership Lessons From Walt Disney, Walt Disney, Bruce Jones, Albert Einstein, Steamboat Willy, Mickey Mouse, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit


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