Lessons in Creative Leadership

By Robert Iger

Innovate or die, and there’s no innovation if your operate out of fear of the new or untested.

Robert Iger is currently Chairman of the Walt Disney Company following his 15 year tenure as CEO starting in 2005. Over his time leading the company, the market cap of Disney rose from $48 billion to over $250 billion. Most noticeably, Iger led the acquisition of Pixar, Marvel and Lucas Film.

At the beginning of the book Iger details ten core principles of leadership:

  1. Optimism — “Simply put, people are not motivated or energised by pessimists”
  2. Courage — “This is true of acquisitions, investments and capital allocations, and it particularly applies to creative decisions. Fear of failure destroys creativity.”
  3. Focus
  4. Decisiveness
  5. Curiosity — “The path to innovation begins with curiosity”
  6. Fairness
  7. Thoughtfulness — “It’s simply about taking the time to develop informed opinions”
  8. Authenticity — “Truth and Authenticity breed respect and trust”
  9. The Relentless Pursuit of Perfect — “If you’re in the business of making things, be in the business of making things great”
  10. Integrity

To this day, I wake up nearly every morning at four-fifteen, though now I do it for selfish reasons: to have time to think and read and exercise before the demands of the day take over. Those hours aren’t for everyone, but however you find the time, it’s vital to create space in each day to let your thoughts wander beyond your immediate job responsibilities, to turn things over in your mind in a less pressured, more creative way than is possible once the daily triage kicks in.

Iger’s boss at ABC Sports was an executive called Roone Arledge whose mantra was “Do what you need to do to make it better.”

Iger describes how he created an environment which refused to accept mediocrity which would make you instinctively push back against the urge to say There’s not enough time or I don’t have the energy.

Iger gives some thought to how best to provide thoughts to creatives who have “poured themselves into the project”. He describes how you should:

  1. Never start out negatively
  2. Never start small as “I’ve found that often people will focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty.”

Empathy is a prerequisite to the sound management of creativity, and respect is critical.

Iger describes how he learnt a lot from Tom and Dan (commonly cited as world-leading CEOs) who were in charge of Capital Cities/ABC. He describes how Disney’s culture was the opposite of the culture that Tom and Dan promoted. Tom and Dan were “warm, accessible bosses” who you could easily go to with a problem while they were intensely focused on managing expenses and increasing earnings. They also believed in “a decentralised corporate structure. If you stuck to your budget and behaved ethically, Tom and Dan gave you room to operate with independence. Other than a CFO and a general counsel, there was no corporate staff, no centralised bureaucracy, and very little interference with the business units.”

In opposition to this, Disney was centralised being run by a central corporate unit called Strategic Planning. This unit was populated by a group Harvard/Stanford MBAs providing insight to Michael Eisner (the then CEO) with this unit wielding power over all the entire senior leadership of Disney.

Iger disbanded the Strategic Planning unit when he became CEO in order to give back power to those “on the ground”.

“Two months after I’d called Steve to tell him I’d been named CEO, I reached out to him again. My ultimate goal was to somehow make things right with Pixar [Michael Eisner and Steve Jobs had a large rift and dis-like of each other]”

To show Jobs the new culture of Disney, Iger partnered with Apple to announce that five Disney shows would be available on Itunes. Later on the ex-CEO, Michael Eisner petition the board to not approve the acquisition of Pixar but luckily failed to muster sufficient support.

Before the final board meeting, Iger read over Theodore Roosevelt’s “the man in the arena” speech.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Iger describes the challenges of incentivising the Disney Executive teams to collaborate on Disney+. Previously Executives had been compensated on the profitability of their individual units which deterred collaboration and risk taking while Disney+ could even have the negative effect of core Disney businesses with Executives having conflicts of interest.

Iger describes how “In order to get them all on Board, I not only had to reinforce why these changes were necessary, but I also had to create an entirely new incentive structure to reward them for their work. I couldn’t penalise them for the purposeful erosion and disruption of their businesses, and yet there were no early bottom-line metrics to assess ‘success’ in the new business. We were asking them to work considerably more, and , if we were using traditional compensation methods, earn less. That would not work. I went to our Board’s compensation committee and explained the dilemma… I proposed a radical idea — essentially, that I would determine compensation, based on how much they contributed to this new strategy, even though, this was going to be far more subjective than our typical compensation practises.

‘I know why companies fail to innovate’ I told them at one point. ‘Its tradition. Tradition generates so much friction, every step of the way’”

Ask the questions you need to ask, admit without apology what you don’t understand, and do the work to learn what you need to learn as quickly as you can.

Take responsibility when you screw up. In work, in life, you’ll be more respected and trusted by the people around you if you own up to your mistakes. It’s impossible to avoid them; but it is possible to acknowledge them, learn from them, and set an example that it’s okay to get things wrong sometimes.

Don’t let ambition get ahead of opportunity. By fixating on a future job or project, you become impatient with where you are. You don’t tend enough to your responsibilities you do have, and so ambition can become counterproductive. It’s important to know how to find the balance — do the job you have well; be patient; look for opportunities to pitch in and expand and grow; and make yourself one of the people, through attitude and energy and focus, whom your bosses feel they have to turn to when an opportunity arises.