How Bob Iger Remade the House That Walt Built

Instead of the easy fixes, Bob Iger played the long game by addressing Disney’s cultural issues head-on, by making it stronger and more profitable with greater depth.

Let me pause here so I can show you one of my prized possessions. [Holds up framed photograph of him shaking Steve Jobs’ hand on stage at an Apple event.] On October 1, 2005, I officially become CEO of The Walt Disney Company. Three weeks later, I showed up on stage with this guy who, to the world, was our mortal enemy, because he controlled Pixar. In the court of public opinion, Steve Jobs was right and Disney was wrong. He wasn’t necessarily right about his opinions of Disney—but he was winning the perception battle. I showed up on stage at an Apple event, when he’s announcing the video iPod, and this picture commemorates our deal.

Going back to your question, these moves were not only designed to set us up in terms of future growth but to start shifting a culture and becoming a company that believed in itself again. I say this not to be critical of what happened before. But times had changed, and the needs of the company were very different. I took advantage of being a new CEO to make these moves. And they led to tangible, cultural change within the company.

Was there an instructive failure in your own career that helped form who you are today as a leader?
My parents, my father in particular, instilled in me a great work ethic and a level of ambition. A lot of it came from a desire to prove that I was up to challenges. I still feel that in me, by the way. I seek new challenges so I can prove that I’m worthy of more. That’s driven me in many ways.

Early on, I learned that if you owned your own failure, or embraced whatever disappointment, it was probably the best way to process and overcome the failure and disappointment. I remember early in my ABC Sports days a relatively trivial mistake had been made on a weekend sporting event on Wide World of Sports, where we simply missed a story that we should have had. In a Monday-morning session that the former head of ABC Sports, Roone Arledge, had, which was typically a postmortem of what went on during the weekend, whatever we had missed came up. There was silence around the room as Roone questioned what happened. At the time, I was young and low-titled and said, “It was my mistake. I missed that.” There was complete silence in the room. Everyone looked around. Here, I had admitted in front of the brass of then ABC Sports, including the head of it, that I had made a mistake.

It was the most empowering thing I could ever have done. We moved on. But what was interesting to me about this was it was a lesson. It was probably the first time I ever owned up to something like that in such a way. Looking back, it was relatively trivial, but it was unbelievably empowering. And the respect that people had for me for doing that actually put me in such a stronger, better position with everybody.

It taught me that if you failed, you have an ability to not just accept the failure and attempt to understand it but to be accountable for it. [Owning up to failure] offers the best chance to recover from it. It’s a lesson I’ve taken with me throughout [my career]. If something fails as a direct result of your decision and you take responsibility for it, you’re much more likely to endure than if you do the opposite.

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