Walt Disney started a fire in the entertainment world that continues to burn decades after his death. Perhaps no single figure so dominated American—and indeed, even global—popular culture as Walt Disney did. Each year, millions view a Disney movie, visit his theme parks, watch his television shows, listen to his recordings, buy his products and read his books. He has held sway in much that has touched our lives, inspiring millions of people and generating billions of dollars.
We cannot measure Disney’s influence as a film producer, director, screenwriter, voice actor, animator, entrepreneur and philanthropist only by numbers or encomia. However, we can state that most notably he changed the shape of American recreation with his Disneyland parks, re-conceptualizing the amusement park as a full imaginative experience—a theme park—rather than a series of diversions, shows or rides. He made a tough call to open Disneyland and then a series of more tough calls to create a chain reaction—a domino effect that we still enjoy today.
Like most virtuosos, Disney seldom dabbled. We will remember him as a leader whose influence went beyond his initial area of concentration as he encouraged space exploration, urban planning and historical awareness. In short, he demonstrated how one person can assert his will on the world and wish upon a star—the leader of the club that he made for you and me.
Even though we remember him as an entertainment genius, Disney offers a modern-day gold standard for organizational development. He taught us that strong leaders don’t shy away from the tough calls, fearing that they will make the wrong ones or that others will second-guess them. He realized that a quest for perfection stands at cross purposes with success.
Walt Disney and others of his ilk remind us that ineffective leadership seldom happens because of rusty management skills. Similarly, organizational disasters and triumphs usually don’t occur because of a flawed culture. Both happen when leaders fail to make the tough calls and ignore the links among beliefs, actions and results.
Traditionally we defined organizations in vast, sweeping generalizations—everything a priority, so nothing a priority. Now we understand that only some parts of a given organization demand the tough calls. What are they? And why do we continue to count things that don’t count?
Philosopher John Dewey observed, “Saints engage in introspection while burly sinners run the world.” Let’s start appreciating the burly sinners of the world —those leaders who make the tough calls because they realize that failure is instructive and that smart people learn as much from setbacks as from successes.