Leading a Creative Organization: Insights from Walt Disney

Olga Popova / Shutterstock.com

Image from Olga Popova / Shutterstock.com
Despite being gone almost fifty years, Walt Disney is omnipresent today. The studio that he started in his uncle’s garage to make silent cartoons is now a worldwide entertainment conglomerate with feature films, TV networks, theme parks, cruise ships and retail stores. In interviews from the 1930s to 1960s he shared some of his insights on how he built and led a creative organization that continues to grow long after his death. (Are you listening, Apple?)

“You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”

In 1927, Walt traveled to New York to meet with Charles Mintz, the distributor of his “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” series of silent cartoons. He had come to ask for more money for the successful shorts. Instead Mintz offered even less money than he was paying and told Disney that, under the terms of their contract, he actually owned the rights to Oswald. Unless Walt accepted his offer, he would hire away the studio’s top animators and produce them himself. Unable to afford Mintz’s lower offer, Walt unhappily surrendered Oswald. On the long train ride back to Los Angeles, he began sketching a new character, a mouse.

“Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it’s done right.”

Back in Los Angeles, Walt and his reduced team worked day and night. The first two silent Mickey Mouse cartoons, Galloping Gaucho and Plane Crazy, were rejected by every distributor. Rather than give up, they started a third cartoon with the new character, with a much more ambitious plan.

“Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.”

A few months earlier, sound had come to the movies. Disney seized on the idea, coming up with a way to synchronize image, music and sound effects. The result was Steamboat Willie. Premiering in November, 1928, it was an instant sensation.

“Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.”

With the success of Mickey Mouse, Disney was able to step back from the day-to-day grind of drawing pictures and frantically hustling for money to keep the lights on. While his brother Roy handled business operations, Walt became the creative leader and public face of the company. With a restless curiosity about new technologies and art forms, he was able to build a team that continually pushed the boundaries of animation, setting a standard few could match.

“We allow no geniuses around our Studio.”

While Walt was always happy to recognize the talent of those around him—particularly the “Nine Old Men” who made up the core of his animation team, no one was ever allowed to dominate or to overshadow the others. It was all about the product and the team. He didn’t play favorites or the “flavor of the month” game with his team. This had the effect of both getting the best work out of everyone and creating an intense loyalty that persisted long after Walt’s death.

“I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.”

Conquering the world of animated shorts—he had won the Academy Award for Best Cartoon all but one year between 1932 and 1939—he took on feature films with Snow White. He then moved to live action films, then television, then theme parks. At every stage he faced difficult competition, but in the end his toughest competitor may have been himself, his own success demanding new challenges.

“A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.”

Walt Disney died in 1966 while rolling the dice one more time, building a massive new theme park in Florida that would again stretch studio finances to the breaking point. It would become one of his biggest successes, a keystone of a corporation that takes in twelve billion dollars a day.

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Forty years later, the studio would reacquire the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

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