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Walt Disney: Vision and Dreams

It’s Christmas in two days (from publication of this blog). So who could be a more appropriate management thinker than…

Walt Disney was perhaps the most visionary business leader of the twentieth century. He grew a simple cartoon character into a vast empire, which sells one thing: dreams

Walt DisneyBrief Biography

Walter Elias Disney was born in 1901, in Chicago, but he grew up on a farm in Missouri. From the earliest age, he was constantly sketching.When the family returned to Chicago while Disney was in his teens, he focused his education on drawing, and studied art in the evenings.

During the First World War, Disney was keen to serve, but failed to demonstrate that he was old enough. Instead, he joined the Red Cross and, at the close of the war, drove ambulances in France. After the war, he had several attempts to create a career from cartooning, and taught himself to make animated films  quickly discovering that painted transparent cels gave better effects than cut-outs. After one failed business (that failed by paying its animators more than he could sell the films for) he moved to Hollywood and, with his brother Roy, set up Disney Brothers Studio.

He continued to innovate technically, basing his technique on his earlier discovery and artistically, inventing his stand-out character creation Mickey (originally Mortimer) Mouse who featured in the world’s first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, in 1928. The next innovation was to use Technicolour for cartoons, with the Silly Symphonies series, but the big hit was when Disney placed $2 million at hazard – a huge amount in the middle of The Great Depression – by making the first ever full length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

This won an oscar for the Best Picture (actually, one oscar and seven mini oscars – another first) and labelled Disney as a creative genius. More animated movies followed, all now seen as classics: Dumbo, Bambi, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Then came the war and a series of animated propaganda movies that it is hard – if not impossible – to find copies of.

After the war, the stream of feature movies resumed, but Disney also turned his attention to a new vision: theme parks. First came the Disneyland Theme Park in Anaheim, California, followed by Disney World in Florida, opened in 1971, five years after Disney’s death in 1966.

Lessons for Managers

By all accounts, Disney was a flawed manager at best, frequently leaving contributions unacknowledged and imposing arbitrary rules without exception. Not all his rules were arbitrary, however – the injunction against swearing upheld the wholesome brand image, and not all were without exception – Disney did not impose his rule against facial hair for men upon himself.

What we can learn are 5 valuable lessons.

1. Vision means Vision

We all too often read or hear a company’s vision statement. All to rarely do they have any sense of vision: of visual impact. Disney constantly used imagery to illustrate what he could see, to help others to see it too. Famously, Roy Disney commented that, on the completion of Disney World, Walt Disney had already seen it when he died, even though it was far from completion.

2. Vision is nothing without Drive

Visionary he may have been, but Disney also had the determination, tenacity, and at times ruthlessness to make his vision a reality. It is also worth mentioning how uncompromising he was in ruthlessly demanding the very best work from his artistic staff.

3. Less is More

It seems an odd comment to make of the man who invented feature length cartoons, but the sheer amount of ideas that Disney abandoned in every one of the films he personally oversaw was staggering. In modern times, they would have filled a box set of DVD extras. And much of it was extremely good – just not good enough for Disney.

4. Protect the Brand Values

Everything Disney did – and much of what it still does – is to protect his vision of what the Disney brand means: dreams. Where modern managers and artistic directors have strayed, huge rows have ensued. As the father of a young girl, the power of Disney to evoke wonder seems to me to be as great today as it ever was.

5. Creativity is Hard Work

Disney and his teams worked hard at being creative. It was a constant struggle of ideas, discussions and culling of anything less than the very best. And then more ideas, more discussion and more culling. Disney the dreamer was half of a split personality. The other half was Disney the critic.

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