This trip into the realm of Disney Archaeology digs right into the life and times of Walt Disney, his leadership skills, and his ability to bring out the best in people. Many people over the years have offered up their opinion on how strong willed Walt Disney could be. Sometimes that opinion is offered with a hint of disdain. That is unfortunate, because anyone who has ever had the pleasure and good fortune of working in and around visionaries know how driven and focused they can be when they are in pursuit of a dream, idea, or concept.
What is often overlooked is Walt’s like and openness for the sharing of ideas and his contempt for people who mindlessly agreed with him. The story is recalled by Rolly Crump of a breakfast meeting that Walt attended.
As the story goes, the server came to the table and the first executive ordered a breakfast of ham and eggs. After writing it down, the server turned toward Walt and asked for his order.
“I’ll have waffles topped with strawberries.” Walt said, folding up the menu.
Instantly the first executive changed his order. “That sounds really good. You know what? Change my order to waffles with strawberries on top.”
This caused Walt to raise an eyebrow. Then he watched as the next executive echoed the same thing. “That does sound good. I’ll have the same.”
As Disney watched expressionless, each executive ordered the same thing – waffles with strawberries on top. After the last order was placed and the entire table had ordered the same thing as Walt, he stood up, tossed down his napkin, made a colorful comment, and walked out of the restaurant without eating breakfast. The meeting was officially over.
In Walt’s mind it was simple and the meeting had no purpose. If the people at the time didn’t have enough conviction when it came to ordering breakfast, how were they ever going to be able to offer any usable ideas for running a theme park or a motion picture studio?
Walt was notorious for starting and ending a meeting right on time. He liked the brainstorming and welcomed ideas, but expected you to defend them. Once he made a decision, the time for brainstorming and discussion was done, he moved forward and there was no rerunning the process it took to get there.
Disagreeing with Disney
Notice I mentioned that Walt would encourage ideas but you had to be able to defend them? That also meant that every idea wasn’t used. There were times that could be tough on people at the table, especially when they liked their ideas!
Dick Nunis, who would later become the chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, recalled as a young executive he was pitching ideas to Walt and Disney was just killing every single idea. At one point Walt told him.
“Nunis, you don’t know what you are talking about.” This was said as Walt stood up and exited the room. Everyone followed Walt out and left Nunis sitting in the now very empty room, feeling alone, and thinking maybe he had pushed too hard and needed to look for a new job.
Head slumped down, staring at the tabletop, he heard the door open and felt a strong hand on his shoulder. With a gentle squeeze he heard the voice of Walt Disney, who had returned to the room for this one purpose, to say this one thing. “Look, young fella, you keep expressing your opinions, I like it.”
Nunis realized that Walt liked people to express their opinions and be driven by core beliefs. Whether he agreed or not, he respected it And just because he disagreed with the idea had nothing to do with whether he liked the person and valued their input.
That is a tough lesson for people to remember. Our world tends to not allow for disagreement and we take it personally when someone doesn’t like what we say or jump to our side of an argument on an issue. You realize what it means when someone disagrees with you? They disagree with you.
In my latest novel, Kingdom Chaos, the fictional character of Grayson Hawkes had to come to grips with his friend and president Tyler Pride, who he liked but didn’t always agree with…. The phrase that was used was “we can learn to disagree without being disagreeable.”
That is how Walt Disney dealt with disagreement – time and time again you could disagree but when it was done, the end result didn’t have to be disagreeable. If we could figure out how to do that in a world where people have no margins for disagreement or independent thought, we might have a greater impact in the world around us…and how knows, we might learn a thing or two, inspire others, and make all of our lives better.