4 Leadership Lessons from Walt Disney

by Kevin Delaney (Originally Published on June 9, 2015)

When you hear the name Walt Disney many words spring to mind – imagination, innovation, creator of the happiest place on earth… overwhelmed, failure, emotional wreck usually don’t make the list. Yet in the pursuit of his dream, Walt Disney found himself at the end of his rope on numerous occasions, he had two nervous breakdowns, and is said to have attempted suicide because the demands and disappointments of bringing his dreams to life pushed him to the breaking point. Despite Disney’s highly optimist nature, the doubts of others made him doubt himself, his worth and his ideas.

Imagine the world without Disneyland or Mickey Mouse, without the classic films like Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, or Cinderella. Yet we almost missed it all. Walt struggled to convince people that his ideas were good. Hollywood thought he was crazy for wanting to make a feature length animated film. His first several animation studios failed. A decade would pass before he saw any real success. But fortunately, Disney pressed on and didn’t give up. He realized his dreams and in the process collected more academy award nominations (59) and won more Oscars (22) than anyone in history. He changed the world and his vision still lives vibrantly today.

Disneyland celebrates its 60th anniversary next month. It’s an incredible milestone and an amazing story of success. There are several lessons on leadership to learn from Walt Disney’s journey:

  1. Even brilliant and optimistic people can reach a point of giving up. Everyone needs encouragement and recognition.
  2. Doing something in a different way ALWAYS brings resistance. Every successful innovation will prove popular opinion wrong. You’ve got to be willing to go against the crowd.
  3. Past failures are often the foundation for future success so don’t concede your ideas too quickly. Have the courage and the patience to allow failure to be an acceptable and expected part of the process so that success can be built from the lessons learned.
  4. Talent can be easily overlooked when it looks different from the norm. The Hollywood establishment didn’t understand Disney or his vision. For many years they missed his brilliance. How many talented and gifted people have been overlooked and written off by managers and companies because they didn’t fit the mold? And, just like Disney, how many of those employees have gone on to great success somewhere else?

Walt Disney died 49 years ago, but his dreams and vision live on. He dared to dream. He dared to share. How much better we’d all be if we did the same. You have ideas that are unique to you. Express them, pursue them. Don’t settle for a bit part in someone else’s story. Bring your own ideas to life. Who knows, maybe 60 years from now the world will be celebrating your dreams.