Walt Disney did some incredible things over the course of his lifetime. History offers evidence of that and his impact in shaping culture continues to this day. As a teacher, a leader, and a writer, I am fascinated by some of the life lessons that we can learn from Walt. During an event where I was working with some leaders in a leadership training setting, I was asked if I could share some thoughts about Walt Disney as a leader. The answer is “yes.” But the reality is that books could be written about him as a leader and the way he motivated people.

However, let me take a few thoughts and share them here…they are brief but you will catch a glimpse of Walt and his role as a leader.

1) Walt was a Hokey Pokey leader

The best part of the Hokey Pokey is when you throw your “whole self in”…and if you are familiar with the song, the big finish means that you throw your whole self in, you shake, you dance, but you don’t step back out.
That is what “its all about.” Throwing your whole self in.

Walt as a leader was “all in!”

Any Disney project that he proposed, he was completely committed to. He was willing to throw whatever it took to make the project happen toward it. He was able to figure out ways to communicate what he wanted. Whether it was a storyboard, model, or some concept drawings he wanted to make sure that people saw the big picture idea he was thinking about. Walt’s commitment to what they were trying to do and his willingness to be actively involved helped position others to be successful and inspired them to keep at it.

Walt said,“When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.”

Leaders today often fail because they are not “all in” and as a result the people they are trying to lead and influence are not “all in” either.

2) Walt was a Blue Sky leader

Before you could ever create a project or before something ever became a reality, Walt was willing to dream it and dream it big. The Blue Sky approach were the sky is the limit of an original idea was always a great starting point. Walt encouraged and inspired those around him to dream big… think “Blue Sky.”

Eventually and gradually the pressure of budget, resources, and time would begin to condense the vastness of the Blue Sky into a manageable reality… but Walt knew that there were a lot of ideas out there in the Blue Sky that they would need to explore to make whatever they were doing the best it could be. The idea was, “why can’t we do that?”

Walt shared, “Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.”

Starting at that point will open you up to possibilities and Walt like endless possibilities. He knew that by chasing the impossible you make the possible better than it has ever been before. Walt liked to lead in the Blue Sky.

Leaders today often fall into the same routine. One of the lost arts of leadership is giving a leader the freedom to dream and allowing those around you the freedom to dream and be heard. If you want to see creativity sparkle throughout an organization, take a few minutes and start dreaming.


3) Walt was a Servant leader

Walt had the ability to connect with, see the needs of, and strive to meet the needs of others. This is what set him apart in so many areas in the formative years of the Disney company. As a film maker he didn’t worry about critics, he thought about his audience. He believed strongly in what others might like and enjoy and tried to figure out ways to get it to them.

In the creation of theme parks, he didn’t want to create what others had done before. Instead, he put himself in the shoes of the guests and wanted to see what needs they had, how he could meet them, and create experiences and memories that would last a lifetime.

Disney always was willing to think of his guests and their needs and wants. As you have heard the story told before, for the first months at Disneyland, some pathways were not initially paved because Disney told his staff “The guests will show us where they want to walk.”

Successful leaders know that they can’t always give people what they want. That is silly. But they do have the responsibility to give them what they need. The art of seeing it, providing it, and responding in ways that others can respond to is all rolled up in this idea of servant leadership. Walt understood that, a great leader must be a great servant.

As I stated earlier, there are so many things to explore with Walt Disney as a leader, these are merely a few bullet points to start you pondering on what made Walt such a great leader and some lessons that can make each of us people of influence as well.