Welcome to Part Three of our four-part series “16 Hard Things You Have to Do to Be a Great Leader.” An anonymous email that was going around several months ago inspired this series, and I start each article with some sort of anonymous Disney story.
This week, I want to begin by going back to the start of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt’s brother Roy tried to discourage Walt from taking on the risk and expense of creating the world’s
first full-length animated feature film, especially given that the world was still in the midst of the Great Depression and that the Disney Studio was miraculously profitable thanks to the popularity of the Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts that played in advance of other live-action movies. As the project progressed, Walt wanted valuable feedback from his studio team.
Then this happened:
At one story conference, the animators, story artists, and other staffers filled out comment cards, detailing their ideas and suggestions about the story. The majority of comments were positive and enthusiastic—but one card read: “Walt, stick to shorts!”
Walt was stunned. Someone in the studio was opposed to Snow White! Fuming, Walt invited the anonymous critic to meet him in his office, but no one stepped forward. The identity of the unknown critic became a matter of legend. Whenever Walt got irritated with one of his artists, he’d point an accusing finger and say, “You’re the one who told me to stick to shorts!”
Though Walt never learned who wrote that card, a handful of artists knew the identity of Walt’s tormentor—and they delighted in keeping the secret.
It was Walt’s own brother, Roy.
This week we will be looking at numbers 9 to 12. All of our stories come from the building and opening of Disneyland. When it came to building an amusement park, Roy was anything but an anonymous critic. Believing that his brother’s latest scheme would bankrupt the studio, Roy wanted nothing to do with Walt’s crazy dream. Nonetheless, Walt did not give up on his dream and Roy did not give up on Walt. Who was the first person to spend the first dollar to purchase the first ticket to get into Disneyland?
Again, it was Walt’s own brother, Roy.
As you read each point and hear each story, I want to challenge you to think about how you can apply each one to a current situation in your own life, business, and/or career. Let’s go!
9. You have to meet deadlines that are unreasonable and deliver results that are unparalleled—
Walt Disney didn’t have the money to build Disneyland on his own. He needed help, and that help came primarily via a partnership with ABC television. When making the deal, Walt agreed to deliver a live, opening day broadcast during the summer of 1955. He broke ground exactly one year earlier, thus giving himself an unreasonable deadline with the expectation of delivering unparalleled results—the world’s first theme park. In fairness to Walt, he was following his own advice, “Everyone needs deadlines. Even the beavers. They loaf around all summer, but when they get faced with the winter deadline, they work like fury. If we didn’t have deadlines, we’d stagnate.”
What’s your dream? Give yourself an unreasonable deadline. Now go do it.
10. You have to search for your own explanations even when you are told to accept the “facts”—
When building Disneyland, one of the greatest challenges was creating a permanent riverbed in the parched orange groves of Southern California that would one day become the famed Rivers of America. After finally finding a solution, Walt refused to listen to the engineers who argued that he needed to take more time and spend more money, to build pumps to move water from the low point of the wells to the higher plane where the Rivers of America sat. “No, just cut a flume to the river and turn the water on,” Walt insisted.
Finally, they did as instructed and the water flowed just as Walt had predicted. Unbeknownst to all, Walt had taken the time to visit with the landowners the year before. He had curiously quizzed them on all kinds of matters, including the orange groves’ irrigation. The surveyors’ maps were wrong, but Walt, because of his own searching, was right.
Go with your gut.
11. You have to be accountable for your actions even when things go wrong—
When Disneyland opened on Sunday, July 17, 1955, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The company refers to that infamous day as “Black Sunday,” and decades later, it remains committed to never repeating that famed fiasco again.
It would have been easy for Walt to blame others, like the guests who crashed the park with counterfeit tickets, or conditions outside his control, like the insanely hot weather that only exacerbated the extremely large crowds and the shortage of food, drink, shade, and cool drinking fountains. Instead, Walt took responsibility and held himself accountable. He sought solutions for whatever could be fixed. Regarding the rest, he simply let go and moved on with his dream.
You are going to make mistakes. That’s okay, as long as you are accountable.
12. You have to be kind to people who have been cruel to you—
The entire point of opening day was to create a massive media event to promote Disneyland for the press and to deliver a live, national audience for ABC television. A then-record number 90 million viewers tuned in on that Sunday afternoon to watch the live broadcast, which you can still view today.
Because of the disaster that was Black Sunday, most of which was hidden from the viewers of the ABC broadcast, the newspapers skewered Walt the next day. The headlines were hideous and reviews were anything but kind. Rather than sulking, or seeking ways to get “even,” Walt immediately took responsibility and went to work to set things right, ensuring that each reporter received a special invitation to return to the park and have another opportunity to experience Disneyland the way he originally envisioned and intended.
Who has been cruel to you? Go be kind.
On October 28, I will wrap up this series with the final four points. Between now and then, please be sure to let me know which of these four is your favorite. As always, thanks for reading and sharing!