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Walt Disney Leadership Style

Walt Disney Leadership Style Revealed

Walt Disney Corporation was founded by Walter Elias Disney in 1923. The Disney enterprise comprises of Disney movies, Disney story books, Disney costumes, Disney clothing lines and toys, the Disney channel, Disney Land, opened in1954; a story boarded them park taken from his works. Disney world is the number one vacation spot on earth; Walt called Disney Land his greatest dreams where he blended imagination with storytelling. The detail and planning he put into his ideas and works was one of the single most important traits that Walt Disney exhibited.

The visions that created the magic of the Disney enterprise began when Walt Disney, just a teen began to draw cartoons. He pursued his dreams of drawing cartoons with a passion for animation, and later he would invent the iconic character that everyone identifies with as “Mickey Mouse.” "The mission of The Walt Disney Company is to be one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world." The reason why Disney was so successful in all of his operations is because he carried his vision and mission over into other areas of Disney.

Walt Disney was innovative and creative. His flair for art and creativity was his greatest trait. Disney World is known as “The imagine capitol of the world.” His innovative trait allowed him to keep up with technology and often he was the innovator of such technologies.  He set up his own art school for his employees when the art schools were not offering Disney what he wanted and needed to carry out his mission since the art schools were not always up to date with the latest technologies.

Walt Disney was a risk taker. His risk taking trait was evident as early as twenty years old when he started his own cartoon business called “Laugh O Grams with his boyhood friend. They learned by trial and error. A NY distributor by the name of “Pictorial Clubs” said they would pay Laugh O Grams 11,100 to produce a movie, but all Walt and his crew received was only 100 dollars. He didn’t spread the money out on small projects but rather he blew all of the money on one film; Alice’s Wonderland. Half way through the production he was broke. He did not finish the film and he sold his movie camera to move to Hollywood. Walt asked the NY distributor for more money and the distributor told him that they will pay Walt Disney less money and refused to give Disney the raise. The distributor owned the rights of the rabbit character that Walt Disney Created. On the way home from his trip to NY he decided he needed a new character and it is there that he created Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney needed to find a new Distributor and he did.

Walt Disney strives for excellence. Disney decided that he had to be better and more effective than any other distributor in order to be successful; so he came up with a way to synchronize animation to include running the cartoon, running the sound effects, character voices and music simultaneously. He needed something revolutionary. In 1928 Mickey Mouse came to theatres. Additionally, when Walt Disney could not find the voice he was looking for to fit Mickey Mouse, one of Walt’s employees suggested that he do the voice. The voice of Mickey Mouse came directly from Walt Disney himself and he owned the rights to the Mickey Mouse character.

In 1936 Walt Disney built his enterprise in Los Angeles, CA. He hired 700 highly skilled artistic employees. In order to produce the best work he went around the country seeking for artist to come work for him. He offered to pay for their schooling to perfect their skill. Helping others is a consistent trait of effective leaders. Walt Disney drew people in with his charismatic charm and family like work environment. He demanded excellence from his employees and in return he had his employees over for Sunday barbeques, playing games and swimming at his house. This instilled trust and a sense of caring in the employees. Walt Disney asked his employees to call him by his first name “Walt” and whenever someone called him “Mr. Disney he would tell them to call him “Uncle Walt.” This offered a sense of welcoming and warmth. His sociability and casual and personal relationships with his employees built trust and confidence in Disney and the Disney vision.  Ultimately his employees were happy to work long hours without any pay because they believed in what they were doing. They shared his vision and in 1936 “Snow White was released, being his first big movie success bringing in over 8 million dollars in sales. Ticket prices were only twenty five cents during this time. This allowed Walt Disney to design and build a new studio as a result of hard work and loyal employees. It was here that his technological department made many break troughs in the way animation was presented. They designed the multi-playing camera and 3D was created. He turned animation into a production line process simply to that of a factory.

The new move wasn’t as great as the employees thought it would be. They complained about the factory like atmosphere and the less casual environment. Workers reported that Walt Disney Productions changed and not all in a good way. His leadership style became more authoritative or autocratic than before. They stated that the new studio was too segregated and too impersonal. Additionally, in this new multimillion dollar studio he provided a hierarchical job chain with the animators at the top, which consisted of all men. The next level on the hierarchical chain was the inkers and painters, and they consisted of all women. Walt Disney had intentionally segregated the men from the women. According to some workers the women were treated terribly. The supervisors would come around and stand over the inkers shoulders and watch them to see if they were fast enough in order to determine whether they were good enough to keep on the job and some were fired. Walt believed that the hands of a woman became shaky after the age of thirty and therefore they should do the menial work and were not capable of animation where the men worked

Walt Disney exercised an autocratic style of leadership after he had moved into the new studio where he became more domineering and controlling. Disney began his mission treating his employees like family but after he moved to the new studio he became more rigid and if anyone crossed him if fireb them.  There was no conflict resolution. If Walt didn’t like something the employees did or said he would fire them.  His ego grew bigger as time went on. For example, employees would move out of the way when he was walking down the hall because they feared him. Additionally, e\he was prejudice and made it known. He didn’t like Jewish people or African Americans. The personal department hired on a Hindu male and he was fired because his skin was too black. 

Another example of his autocratic leadership style was the lack of decision making by the employees. Walt Disney was known to fire people on the spot if they disagreed with his final decision; however, at the same time he would ask for input from an employee occasionally. This type of leadership style would be participative. Participative leader the leader will involve one or two employees in the decision making process.

Traits of an Ineffective Leader

Although Disney had many of the traits of an effective leader, in addition to effective leadership styles he also possessed many maladaptive traits and style that would question his sanity and motivation of his leadership. He was inconsistent in his leadership. He once started off charismatic, friendly, open, and sociable to his employees; once he moved to the new studio and after grossing over 8 million in sales from Snow White he changed. He became controlling. He did not like to be questioned. He directed everything that everyone did and if they didn’t do it like he wanted them to then they were fired. He was described by former employees as a task master. Walt was a stern task master and never praise.

A good leader is both consistent in his personal and professional life. The face he showed his family was different than the one he showed his workers. He would never tell his employees what a good job He would test people to see if they would defend what they believed in. One employee stated that when an employee pleased him they would feel really good as if they couldn’t touch the ground for a couple of days. One thing they do recall is that they were never sure of the mood he was in. They would send in an employee to his office to see if he was wearing the “Bear suit.” The bear suit meant that he was cranky and ornery. They referred it to a wounded bear who was grouchy.

Giving Credit when Credit is Due

Walt Disney was known to take all of the credit for Disney Productions by accepting Oscars awards on many occasions without acknowledging any of the animators or other employees who were responsible for making it all happen. Further, he went as far as to sign multiple drawings that were displayed a New York exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. He didn’t make any of those drawings but he signed his name to other people’s drawings. As he won awards resentment among his artists grew. He was stealing the credit of the work of his workers.  The employees suggested that they have their own personal “Oscar Ceremony” to recognize the employees internally. However Walt was offended by that and stated that if there were going to be any awards handed out that he would be the one to receive them and he ended the meeting.

Intimidation, Coercion, Exploitation, and Extortion

Disney’s happy family environment soured and his employees no longer viewed him as a father figure. This resulted in the employees protesting to be unionized. Disney did not like this because it would take the control away from him. The union would have a say in how he treated his workers. However, Disney felt that he treated his workers well and that was good enough. The workers threatened to walk out, but Walt Disney did not budge. The workers figured he would eventually take care of their grievances. Walt Disney felt he had been a “Fine daddy” to his employees; whereas his employees felt that their “Daddy” had betrayed them. This relational dynamics turned into a major conflict. It is interesting to note that from the beginning Disney portrayed himself as a father or uncle figure. I believe that would be a patriarchal leadership style; very similar to an authoritative leadership style.

The strike went on for about two months. Disney was angry and distraught over the strike and would not give in to higher wages, better working conditions and union support. In order to re-gain control of the situation Walt Disney utilized yet another questionable tactic; intimidation! He intimidated his workers and threatened to end production of animation in order to produce more live action pieces. To prove he was serious he utilized coercion by auditioning hopeful actresses who were from his clerical department. The clerical workers were from the bottom of the hierarchical chain and he exploited their vulnerabilities of the hopes of becoming an actress and had them paraded around in bathing suits to manipulate his point. He went on to tell his animators that if he fired them that no one will hire them because he was the “top dog” in the world of animation. The creative artists formed an artistic picket line protesting for more wages and better treatment. They utilized their artistic skill to get their point across. The strike created animosity between the workers who remained loyal to Disney and the employees who participated in the strike.

The movie “Dumbo” was being created during the time of the Strike. Many of the Artistic creations were created by many of the animators who were picketing and the movie represented much of what was occurring at Disney at the time such as workers asking the boss for a raise.  During the strike Disney decided to take the strike to a whole new level. He had a photographer photograph all of the picketers and hung the photos in his office and began to personalize the strike. He would say things like “I did this for that person; I did that for that person” and so on. It was no longer about the strike but rather “this is what I get for all I’ve done for you attitude.” It got to the point where Disney could not accept the strike and defied it. Walt Disney’s sanity was questioned as e\he came to believe that it was the communists who had been behind the strike and in America in general; when in reality the strike had to do with labor practices at Disney studio.

As the second month of the strike approached, Disney decided to turn to organized crime in order to intimidate Hollywood’s trade unions. Disney hired a member of the Capone family, “Willy Bioff”  to “neutralize” the strike and to keep the trade unions out. Disney drew up an offer for Bioff to deliver to the strike leaders. Bioff delivered it by taking the strike leaders to a house where other members of the mafia were waiting with machine guns threatening them another intimidation tactic used by Disney. The workers shared their horrific story with one another and they decided to turn down the offer because Bioff was a gangster known for his extortionist tactics.

As the strike marched on Disney began to develop phobias and twitches and washed his hands up to thirty times an hour. Disney’s business partner and brother, Roy Disney decided to that time away would do Walt some good so he encouraged Walt to take a trip to South America, offer of the American Government to produce movies about their countries. Walt Disney and his loyal employees accepted the offer and went Rio. Unlike Walt Disney, Roy Disney was in touch with reality and settled the strike within 24 hours after Walt left for Rio. The workers received better pay and work conditions and recognition of a trade union.

When Walt Disney had learned of the negotiation, he became irate and destroyed his temporary officer in South America. However when Walt returned from South America the movie Dumbo had been complete and was a success. Moreover, just six weeks after Dumbo was released, America went to war and Disney produced a movie called “The Fuehrer’s Face” that reflected what life would be like under the command of Hitler. He won an Oscar for this movie in 1943. It is interesting to note that many of Disney’s leadership styles were a lot like Hitler’s. For example, he did not like Jews, he was prejudice, and he appeared to have a mental illness, possibly OCD. In addition, Disney also exercised an autocratic leadership style that consisted of the use of intimation and coercion and the endless need for complete control.

Bambi would be the next animation produced by Disney. During its creation it is suggested that Disney lost his passion for animation after the strike and took on a new interest. His belief that the communist were behind the strike was potentially due to what was going on during the time and as a result of following a well-known controversial leader; J. Edgar Hoover.  J Edgar Hoover was the director of the FBI and also believed that the communist were penetrating American schools and other entities. The two leaders shared a common believe and interest; so Disney wrote to the FBI explaining that he believed that certain employees were possibly communists. He began working with the FBI as a confidential informant. Disney supplied the FBI with information of the going illegal issues in Hollywood.   Disney contacted the FBI, marking the beginning of a twenty year relationship between the FBI. Further Disney created a group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American (PA) Ideals. They were dedicated to seeking out the communist activity. They really believed that communism was taking hold of our schools and the movie industry. Disney and his MPA colleagues drew up a list of several names whom they believed were engaged in communist activities and gave it to FBI investigators. Those names would be the first victims of the MacCoffee act. Some believed that this was Disney’s way to black list anybody out of the industry to destroy their career and others believed it was his way of getting back at the leaders who orchestrated the strike in the first place because the strike leaders were the ones named as communists by Disney. He also named an employee who studied in Russia and he had no religion therefore he used that information along with his word that the employee was indeed a communist. Disney stated that he had firm evidence that his former employee was communist. The FBI played into his delusion and paranoia. It was the beginning of a nightmare for the employees listed.

On one hand Walt Disney a successful and powerful film producer and on the other he was a manipulative dictator whose powerful influence ruined many lives by using his power and reputation. Some believed that he used his power and influence to seek revenge. After the war and after the release of Bambi Disney went on to succeed in live action, TV, theme parks, and other unimagined successes. As the enterprise expanded his reputation was polished and anyone who inquired about his dealings with the FBI, and those who wanted to read the official documents revealed that Disney’s file was 80% blacked out. Disney’s Delusion and paranoia started a lot of chaos. His delusional theme of the communist taking over the American labor unions and the movie was unfounded.

When I set out researching one of the leaders that I admired I was surprised to find all of the negative traits that Walt Disney possessed. I believe that initially he started off with exemplary leadership skills, traits and style that reflect an exemplary leader; however, as he gained power, admiration, money, influence, and control, his leadership qualities took a change for the worse. Initially he motivated his employees by offering them friendship and a feeling of family, in addition to his spontaneity that kept the employees coming back.  Disney was known for his silliness and acting out the storyboards. The employees found this entertaining. By him engaging with his employees gave them a feeling of mentorship and the drive to be the best that they could be. 

Disney “challenged the process and inspired the vision” posited by Kouzes and Posner by keeping in line with his vision. During the rough times, particularly during the war, Walt Disney found a way to compensate for the 40% of loss sales due to European sales resulting in the company debt of 4 million dollars. He continued movie production by working with the federal government making training moves and produced an anti-semantic cartoon about what life would be like with Hitler that is now banned.  His endless drive and consistency for excellence were evident and was the foundation for the success of Disney Corporation.

When comparing and contrasting my own leadership competencies to this individual, I believe personal development strategies I would undertake is his endless creativity. According to R. Dilts “the Circle of Creativity was developed by R. Dilts based on the successful strategies of Walt Disney. It is a model for effective and creative development of personal and professional plans. It helps you to transfer an idea into the input for a plan” (R. Dilts). The model suggests that we can categorize ideas into three components: 1.The dreamer phase. 2. The Realist Phase. 3. The Critic Phase. “The dreamer is the part in any person or the person in any planning team that is able to creatively develop new ideas, no matter whether they are realistic or not. Without the dreamer, there would be no innovation” (Diltz). The realist is the actual planner aware of the procedures and processes to make the dream happen. “The critic looks for what could go wrong with the plan and cares about risks. He provides input for new dreams” (Diltz).  This model allows the business leader to step into any one of these phases according to the needs at the time.  Knowing when to implement the plan and carrying it out is essential to all organizations and Walt Disney did have a gift in making his dreams come true! 

I believer overall that the many of the leadership styles and traits exercised by Walt Disney reflected by the sign of the times. For example by only allowing men to perform animations and women to perform the menial tasks was accepted in the Disney Corporation. At that time, women were still viewed as being oppressed and not capable of doing the work that a man could do.



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Disney Link To the F.B.I. And Hoover Is Disclosed

Discovering Wisdom in Disney’s Collaborative Style

Northouse, P. (2010) Leadership Theory and Practice 5th ed. Western Michigan University. Sage Publications Inc.

Walt Disney Company

Unexpected Leadership Lessons from Walt Disney