Robert Iger worked for the same company for 45 years: 22 of them at ABC and another 23 at Disney (after Disney acquired ABC in 1995), with the last 14 of those years as the CEO of Disney.
In his book The Ride of a Lifetime, Iger writes of the key mentors in his career and his relationship with Steve Jobs, George Lucas and Michael Eisner.
Iger truly embraces innovation. When he took over as CEO in 2005, he laid out three strategic priorities, saying it should be about the future – not the past.
These priorities have guided the company through all the growth and acquisitions since he was named CEO.
Today, Disney is the largest media company in the world, counting Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox among its properties.
What follows are 20 leadership lessons from his book, but stripped of the stories that brought them to life. You’ll have to read the book to get that.
I talk a lot about “the relentless pursuit of perfection.”
It’s not about perfectionism at all costs. It’s about creating an environment whereby mediocrity is not accepted. It’s about pushing back against the urge to say that “good enough” is good enough.
Be decent to people.
Treat everyone with fairness and empathy. This doesn’t mean that you lower your expectations or convey the message that mistakes don’t matter. Excellence and fairness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Be aware of the pitfalls of only caring about the product and not the people.
This is a sense of knowing who you are and being guided by your own clear sense of right and wrong.
Value ability more than experience.
Put people in roles that require more of them than they know they have in them.
Do not fake anything.
You have to be humble, and you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not or to know something you don’t.
Don’t start negatively and don’t start small.
People will often focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty.
Don’t let ambition get ahead of opportunity.
Ambition can be counterproductive. It’s important to know how to find a balance – do the job you have well; be patient and look for opportunities to expand and grow. Make yourself one of the people your bosses will turn to when an opportunity arises.
Know what to pursue and where to put your energy.
Iger’s former boss, Dan Burke (ABC), once handed him a note that said: “Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of oil a year!” He was telling him not to invest in small projects that would sap his and the company’s resources and not give much back.
Don’t believe you’re indispensable.
Be self-aware enough that you don’t cling to the notion that you are the only person who can do this job. Good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to step into your shoes by giving them access to your decision-making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve.
Lead from a place of courage, not fear.
Stop stubbornly trying to build a bulwark to protect old models (even ones that are profitable) that can’t possibly survive the sea change that is underway.
Optimism emerges from faith in yourself and in the people who work for you.
It’s not about saying things are good when they’re not, and it’s not about having blind faith that “things will work out.” It’s about believing in your and others’ abilities.
With enough thoughtfulness and commitment, the boldest ideas can be executed.
Sometimes people build a case against trying something before they even step up to the plate. Long shots aren’t usually as long as they seem.
Convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly.
If you don’t articulate your priorities clearly, the people around you won’t know what their priorities should be. Time, energy and capital get wasted.
Take the guesswork out of it.
A lot of work is complex and requires intense amounts of focus and energy, but this kind of messaging is fairly simple: This is where we want to be. This is how we’re going to get there.
It’s easy to be optimistic when everyone is telling you you’re great.
It’s much harder, and much more necessary, when your sense of self is on the line.
As a leader, you are the embodiment of that company.
Your values – your sense of integrity, decency and honesty – are a stand-in for the values of the company. This truth holds: what people think of you is what they think of your company.
Projecting your anxiety onto your team is counterproductive.
There’s a difference between communicating that you share their stress (and that you’re in it with them) and communicating that you need them to deliver just to alleviate your stress.
Disrupting a business model that is working for you requires no small amount of courage.
It means intentionally taking on short-term losses in the hope that a long-term risk will pay off. That’s a big ask, in terms of a company’s culture and mindset. Deal with this kind of uncertainty by going back to basics: lay out your strategic priorities clearly. Remain optimistic in the face of the unknown. Importantly, be accessible and fair-minded to the people whose work lives are being thrown into disarray.
It’s not good to have power for too long.
You get used to people withholding their opinions until they hear what you have to say. People are afraid to bring ideas to you, afraid to dissent, afraid to engage. This can happen even to the most well-intentioned leaders. Work consciously and actively to fend off these corrosive effects.
Hold on to your awareness of yourself, even as the world tells you how important and powerful you are.
The moment you start to believe it all too much, the moment you look at yourself in the mirror and see a title emblazoned on your forehead, you’ve lost your way.
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I hope you have enjoyed these insights. Have a great week and stay growth-focused!
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