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Seven lessons of Walt Disney (2006-12-07)

The essence of the life of Walt Disney, dreamer, innovator, entrepreneur and protean exporter of American culture — and dead for 40 years this month — has eluded biographers. Until now. The Hollywood historian Neal Gabler masterfully fills the gap with his 851-page Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Alfred A. Knopf). If you’re in search of a long, satisfying holiday vacation read, this is the book.

I read it from San Francisco to Miami (and back) and during our tenth FORBES Cruise for Investors in the eastern Caribbean Sea. So good was Walt Disney that I skipped a snorkeling trip in Grand Turk and a splash with the dolphins in Tortola. I will now publicly beg my abandoned wife’s forgiveness. Honey, the book was that good.

Enough gushing. Here’s why I liked it. Walt Disney is the best business book I’ve read in years. That’s not a high bar, as most books written directly to address business challenges are hopeless bores, of course. Of the few good ones, most are only indirectly about business. Last year I recommended as a terrific “business” book, Wooden on Leadership, by John Wooden, former head basketball coach for UCLA. A couple of years ago I hailed Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church as a useful read. Just substitute “business” for “church” and it’s all there.

In Walt Disney Gabler takes us inside the heart and head of one of our greatest entrepreneurs. Here are some lessons Walt has to teach:

An unhappy childhood doesn’t kill

When Walt was 9 years old, his father, Elias, sold the failed family farm and bought a paper route in Kansas City. Elias put his boys to work. The youngest, Walt, “would rise early, in the darkness, to get his allotment of 50 papers. … He returned home at 5:30 or 6:00, took a short nap and then woke and ate his breakfast. … At times the cold and his tiredness would conspire, and Walt would fall asleep, curled inside his sack of papers.” Out of this Dickensian boyhood grew Walt’s vision of escape to a utopian world. That vision, of course, would inspire his animations and theme parks.

Don’t fall in love with money

Walt was a lousy businessman, by his own admission. His brother Roy handled all money matters. “[Walt] cared nothing for money except as a means to an end,” writes Gabler. “Walt’s only ambition was to make great cartoons.” Time and again Walt and Roy would gamble all they owned on making breakthrough movies and, eventually, a theme park. Knowing the money could come and go, Walt, his wife, Lillian, and their two children lived modestly in a three-bedroom house. They rarely hobnobbed with other Hollywood moguls.

Exploit the latest technology

During the mid-1920s Disney’s main competitor was the New York shop of Max and Dave Fleischer, creators of Koko the Clown and, later, Betty Boop and Popeye. Disney’s Hyperion studio had recently introduced Mickey Mouse in a silent short called Plane Crazy. Then came the technology of sound. Disney saw the potential. He innovated a way to synchronize sound and action, which spawned Steamboat Willie, the movie that forever propelled Disney ahead of the Fleischers. Disney spent his career looking for the technology edge.

Demand perfection, but play loose

Walt often worked ‘til midnight and demanded the same of his employees. In grueling “sweatbox” sessions he could ream an animator for a poorly drawn dwarf’s thumb. But Walt also built a corporate campus with airy rooms, air-conditioning and top furniture, in the manner of today’s coolest ad agencies or software firms. Dress, led by Walt, was casual. He encouraged pranks among the staff.

Borrow from the outside

Flush from the successes of movie shorts featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the Three Little Pigs, Walt wanted to make a feature-length picture. But he knew the gag-driven pace of the shorts would wear out over 80 minutes. So, to prepare for making Snow White, Walt sent his animators to classes in acting, fine arts and even to classes on motion and gravity.

Be a storyteller

If Walt Disney had one towering gift, it was this: He was an extraordinary storyteller. He used stories to convey his vision and inspire employees. In the winter of 1934 he gathered his top animators on a soundstage. “Walt was standing at the front, lit by a single spotlight in the otherwise dark space,” writes Gabler. “Announcing that he was going to launch an animated feature, he told the story of Snow White, not just telling it but acting it out, assuming the characters’ mannerisms, putting on their voices, letting his audience visualize exactly what they would be seeing on the screen. He became Snow White and the wicked queen and the prince and each of the dwarfs.” The performance took more than three hours. “‘He was a spellbinder,’ recalled animator Joe Grant.”

Reinvent yourself when necessary

The huge success of Snow White created employee expectations that Walt couldn’t fulfill. In 1941 Disney studio animators went on strike. Walt was shattered. He would never again feel the same passion for cartoons and movies. Thus began his wilderness period, which lasted a decade. Out of that period came Walt’s inspiration for Disneyland, and he threw himself into the theme park.

Where did Walt’s second wind come from? Can’t tell you — I’m out of space. Read Neal Gabler’s fine biography on a great American businessman.

Read Rich Karlgaard’s daily blog at http://blogs.forbes.com/digitalrules or visit his home page at www.karlgaard.com.

Source: www.Forbes.com • Rich Karlgaard

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