A Business man, a carpenter, a farmer, a contractor, a paperboy, an army ambulance driver, an artist, a husband and a father who changed the way we imagine and brought a new face to the entertainment industry, Walter Elias Disney.
A mysterious leader, respected by many but feared by them as well and his leadership approach took many shapes and turns throughout his career which was filled with ups and downs.
Born in the year 1901 in Illinois Chicago, Walt quickly fell in love with drawing and sketching. Growing up on a farm is where his dream started, while his father plowed the field Walter used to draw. He sold his first drawing when he was seven years old to one of their neighbors. He went to high school in the morning and Academy of fine arts in the night. Sold candies and newspaper with his father. While in his teenage, he grew fond of joining the army but was rejected and joined the red cross as an ambulance driver, In Germany when all the army vehicles were covered in camouflage, Walt’s ambulance was covered in sketches and doodles.
From a young age Walt showed the characteristics of a leader, he continuously worked towards his passion even if his situations weren’t favorable. He was quick on his feet, took risks, believed in himself and never stopped hustling.
After Walt came back from the War, he immediately joined the Pesemen-Rubin Art Studio where he met Ubbe Iwwerks, a fellow artist. In 1920 they opened their own company called “Iwwerks-Disney” , but the company eventually failed and they started working at the Kansas City Film Ad.
Disney had an issue working under authority, working on someone else’s idea wasn’t something that he thought he could do, So in 1922 he again formed a new agency known as the Laugh-O-Gram Films, where he composed short cartoons. Due to his poor finance management skills his agency collapsed and not be able to pay his debts he moved to Hollywood with $40 in his pocket to his brother’s place. With no luck finding a decent job he convinced his brother to finance and partner a new company with him. Hence “Disney Brothers” was formed and from 1925 they started hiring more people.
This early years were the time when Walt began to grow transformational aspects of his leadership style.
In 1928, Walt faced a huge loss because of the Oswald character rights but then he created Mickey Mouse, becoming a huge success he recovered from all the loss and won an Academy Award.
Walter had always been a visionary, a hard worker and showed devotion in everything that he did. After all the draw-backs and struggles it his enthusiasm and ambition that made a leader that everyone loved and still follows his vision.
He could be described as a risk taker and a hands-on leader, he believed being creative was the main element for running a successful business so he started evening classes for his employees to train and develop talents that were useful for that industry.
Disney cared a lot about the people that worked with him, he knew every employee by their name and insisted in calling him “Walter” or “Walt”. He was very relationship oriented, he liked to see everyone happy and helped his employees in every way he could.
He always had a clear vision of his goals and achievements, he also had excellent communication skills that built up the drive and determination to achieve those goals.
To bring out the best is everyone they meet is one of the trait of a successful transformational leader. Walter used to engage and exploit his employees to achieve their full potential. His artists were very loyal to him as he gave them exciting new projects to work and produce together. Respect and trust were the foundation of his leadership, he kept his staff motivated and encouraged them to be creative and innovative.
These traits are characterized as some of the most important features in a transformational leader by Bass & Riggo in Transformational Leadership (2006)
In 1929 Walt hired 28 artist and animators through vigorous interviews and tests, he wanted nothing but excellence from them. At this point his leadership style was even more developed as a transformational leader as his employees would go above and beyond to reach Walt’s expectations.
‘Walter had an ability to make his employees feel that what he wanted done was a terribly important thing to get done.” (Gabler, 2008).
Even during the great depression, Disney’s employees were well paid and the animators were very optimistic and ambitious to work on projects like “Snow White”. All the staff of Disney showed great team work, they often collaborated and develop ideas together and combining their individual talents, as if it was their own company. Walter had earned the approval and the trust of his staff, he exhibited idealized influence. He was able to convey and make people understand his vision for the Disney company and also motivate them to work creatively towards it with him. He even concentrated on each staff individually and made them realize the importance of input that they provided for his company. (Bass & Riggio, 2006)
Soon after the success of Snow White, the company started taking in more projects and more employees. Now there were teams working on different projects like Bambi and Pinocchio and that led to competition and rivalry with destroyed the collaborative environment of the company. Walter didn’t engage and became distant from his employees which led to a strike that lasted 3 months. Walter had to downsize the staff and became cruel and revengeful to his employees.
The Disney film studio soon lost its fame and as Walt started to finalize his plans for Disneyland, “He had become even more terrifying and even more distant” (Gabler, 2008). Walt Completely shifted his focus from Disney studio to Disneyland and even started staying in an hidden apartment inside the Disneyland where he would share rides with customers and even refill the juice centers with oranges at four in the morning.
A leadership makes a huge impact on people’s lives, Walt Disney showed that people are inspired and influenced by leaders. In the end, Walt was not loved by everyone but he sure was respected by them all. His values and leadership is keeping people at Disney committed even after his death. He had made mistakes but he is still the most transformational and charismatic leader the world has ever seen.