Walt Disney's Bob Iger: What it takes to be a great leader in and out of crisis

Walt Disney Company executive chair and former CEO shares his views on disruptive innovation, leadership and the COVID-19 crisis

Great leaders are not only good operators in the present, they’re the ones who prepare and manage for the future. And that means embracing disruptive innovation, Walt Disney Company executive chairman and chairman of the board, Bob Iger, says.

Speaking during this week’s Gartner US Marketing Symposium, the iconic business leader shared his insights into innovation and disrupting the group’s business model, COVID-19’s lasting impact, great leadership and more.

Iger is well known for his 15 years leading the Walt Disney Company. But it’s arguably his decision to embrace streaming to disrupt the group’s business models, sacrificing billions in revenue short-term, that has earnt him the media attention in recent times. Speaking on this subject of disruptive innovation, Iger said it’s vital organisations disrupt from within. Yet he agreed it can be a difficult sell culturally.

“As human beings, we have a hard time creating self-inflicted wounds. Sometimes when you innovate to the point you are creating disruption to your own business, at least in the near term, it’s not easy for the human condition to embrace that. It’s probably why innovation, when it results in self-disruption, is a very difficult thing,” Iger told Gartner VP and analyst, Augie Ray, in the fireside discussion.  

“But we live in a world that’s constantly changing. Innovation needs to be a constant process. You can’t dabble in it, or move in and out of it, it has to be constant because change is constant.

“The future of media and entertainment has shifted dramatically. People are getting far more used to consuming what we make in very different ways. We need acceptance of a new norm. Even if it creates short-term pain, which results in decrease in profitability, the long-term gain is significant if we make the shift in a timely way.”  

To achieve this as managers, it’s imperative to do two things, Iger said. “Be good operators in the present, and to manage in the future. A good manager operates well today; a great manager operates well today while also preparing for the future. And that means innovating.”  

As to how make innovation a worthy trade to the status quo, Iger’s advice was to firstly “call it like it is”. “Describe in an unadulterated fashion, without mincing any words, exactly what the forces of disruption look like, their impact today and what it could be tomorrow,” he said.

“Recognise unless you disrupt to all those forces and dynamic change, your business will be less relevant and successful long term. So the first thing is laying out what you’re seeing today, and what the impact could be tomorrow.”  

Then it comes down to laying out a good, solid argument. “As with any good effort to persuade, you have to lay out a very worthwhile argument that in preparing for the future, to accept some sacrifices in the present,” Iger said.  

This doesn’t mean abandoning core values or brand purpose as an organisation, however. Instead, Iger advised taking the values informing the company in the beginning and bringing them forward in a modern way.

“It could be into a world that doesn’t look anything like the world when the brand was creator. So this has to be done in modern ways,” Iger said. “It’s not straying from core values or distancing from vision of the founder in the first place, it’s about making sure the vision and values are kept current, and in how the values are communicated and the vision is carried out today and into the future.”

COVID-19 impact

One of the most disruptive forces most leaders have ever had to navigate through is the COVID-19 crisis. Iger said the team at Walt Disney Company had talked about variety of scenarios that could create huge displacement and disruption for the organisation, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks, and experience a lot of them.

“Having gone through these times and dealing with crises, we have learned how to come together as a team and know the importance of teamwork when it comes to contending with the biggest crises,” he said. “But we realised what we had to content with was more prolonged and bigger than we have ever deal with.”

While it’s clear COVID-19 will present a new norm, Iger wasn’t prepared to bet on what trends are permanent, and which is ephemeral.

“People got used to working from home and not being in the same place. I believe it will result in fewer people working in the same place next often. How profound that will be? I don’t know yet,” he commented. “In our case, people got more used to consuming the content at home. But that doesn’t mean people don’t want to go to the movies or concerts again. Perhaps it’ll be less often. But we won’t know until we see what life looks like on the other side.”

Through all of this, the lesson for leaders is to balance reality with positivity, Iger said. “We talk about optimism as a core attribute of a good leader – people don’t want to follow a pessimist. But we also have to be authentic and genuine as leaders,” he said.

“I think effective optimism is realism with hope. It’s about hopeful and optimistic that no matter how difficult the circumstance.

“We are experiencing the biggest crisis the company has faced in its 100 years and the biggest force the world has faced in my lifetime. You have to figure out a way to be realistic and accept it’s a very difficult circumstances, but also be hopeful it will end at some point and our company will ultimately survive and try to give a reason why.

“We know it’s because of the nature of our people, resilience, assets, strength of our brand and the value our product brings to people around the world. The desire to consume Disney doesn’t go away in the pandemic. The ability to consume is curtailed, but the desire hasn’t gone away.”

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