Acclaimed Disney expert Jim Korkis tells the stories of what Walt did right, what he did wrong, and how you can follow in his footsteps. Drawing upon his unparalleled knowledge of the Disney Company and its legacy, Korkis distills the essence of Walt Disney's leadership principles into an exciting narrative of popular history and self-help.
You'll read not just about what Walt did but why he did it, and how you can apply the lessons to your own life or your own enterprise.
Who's the Leader of the Club will teach you how to lead like Walt. You don't have to be producing animated films or running theme parks to benefit from the innovative but common-sense approaches Walt Disney took to every challenge. In just a few hours, you'll learn what it took Walt a lifetime to perfect, and you'll learn how to put it to work for you.
Just as important, Korkis will teach you how not to lead like Walt. No leader is perfect, and Walt had traits that cost him, such as his berating employees in public, never praising an employee for good work, and trying to get the best out of people by pitting them against one another. Despite these flaws, Walt inspired great personal loyalty and devotion. Korkis explains why.
Do you know your story? Walt Disney's success was built on stories and storytelling: not just fairy tales about princesses and dwarfs, but knowing how to communicate so vividly and so compellingly that others want your story to come true, and will help you make it come true. But first you have to know your story, and then you have to learn how to tell it.
Walt never lost sight of the many stories he told in his lifetime. In Who's the Leader of the Club?, Jim Korkis tells the stories of Walt's lifetime, including:
Packed with lessons, anecdotes, and quotes, Who's the Leader of the Club? comes with all you need to master the Disney way, start telling your story, and become the leader of your club.
Section One: Disney and Leadership
Who Was Walt Disney?
What Type of Leader Was Walt?
Leaders — Managers: Walt — Roy
Roy O. Disney and Manager Skills
Walt Disney and Leadership Skills
Section Two: Leadership Lessons
Lesson One: Know the Story
Lesson Two: Share the Story
Lesson Three: Take a (Calculated) Risk
Lesson Four: Make 'em Laugh
Lesson Five: Eager to Learn
Lesson Six: Understand People
Lesson Seven: Live the Story
Section Three: Additional Guidance
Walt's Bad Leadership
Walt's Advice to Leaders
Letting People Go
Walt and Money
Do You Know Your Story?
Remembering Walt's Leadership
Final Words from Walt
I am delighted that the premier Disney storyteller, my friend Jim Korkis, has taken on the important task of analyzing Walt Disney as a leader and CEO of the Disney Company in this enjoyable book.
To many people, Disney means outstanding characters such as Mickey Mouse, with a sprinkling of pixie dust. However, the Walt Disney Company experienced many business and financial reversals and triumphs in the early years. As such, Walt came to appreciate that for there to be an outstanding story onstage, offstage there needed to be a profitable business conducted with integrity.
In the engaging and thought-provoking pages that follow, Jim weaves an entertaining story of Walt’s leadership principles into seven lessons. Although each lesson merits the attention of any serious business or organizational leader, I would highlight Lesson Seven, “Live the Story”. In this lesson, Jim reaches deep into his seemingly never-ending bag of Disney information to set forth Walt’s approach to ethics and integrity.
From my thirty years of experience as a business professor and attorney, I am constantly reminded that most organizational issues stem from integrity concerns. In this lesson (as well as the others), Jim uses a level of Disney detail only he possesses to describe and analyze Walt’s approach to questions of business ethics and integrity in the workplace and in private life.
In addition, Jim “plusses” the narrative for the busy leader by including a one-page action plan—“What Would Walt Do?”—at the end of each lesson.
Any cursory reading of current events and opinion polls suggest that concerns about ethical and integrity issues at both the individual and organizational levels are paramount to today’s consumer and leaders. For example, consumers are interested in sustainability, the environment, and other important matters that vex the human condition and transcend some financial statement bottom lines.
To better prepare today’s leaders to flourish in this environment, I strongly suggest that it would be time and energy well used to consider applying Walt’s leadership lessons to their organizations. As Jim so eloquently describes, Walt’s lessons have stood the test of time as evidenced by the ongoing financial and ethical success of the Disney Company since his passing nearly fifty years ago.
Until you have the great pleasure to hear Jim speak in person (Jim’s passion about Disney and his oratorical skills spellbind all audiences, including our students at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, as well as business and organizational leaders.), I am confident the readers of Jim’s book will likewise be entertained by the story narrative that only Jim can tell. At the same time, they will be able to immediately apply Walt’s “best practices” to their businesses or organizations to help achieve their goals—with integrity.
I grew up in the city of Glendale, California, which was immediately adjacent to Burbank, the home of the Disney Studio.
At the age of twelve, having a fascination with animation, I eagerly watched the weekly Disney television series. I scribbled down the names I saw in the end credits of each episode.
I found many of those names in the Glendale-Burbank telephone book and called them up to ask about Disney animation. Some were gracious enough to invite me to their homes where I spent hours being enthralled by their stories and art demonstrations.
They often recommended me to their friends, and so I got the unique opportunity to talk with many animators, Imagineers, and others who had personally known Walt Disney. I was able to share some of those stories in local newspapers, magazines, and books.
Over the years, I even developed a friendship with Walt’s oldest daughter, Diane Disney Miller, who was supportive of my work as well as sharing with me personal insights about her father.
In 1995, I relocated to Orlando, Florida, to take care of my parents, who had both developed some health issues. I got a job at Walt Disney World that included assisting with the professional business programs where I met many executives who had worked with Walt Disney and been trained by him.
Once again, I was enthralled by their stories and experiences, and took detailed notes.
The leadership lessons of Walt Disney contained in this book created an organization respected and admired around the world. Unfortunately, these lessons have not been officially taught at Disney University to new leaders for well over two decades.
I felt it was time to share them again.
I have made every effort to use Walt Disney’s own words as well as the words of those who had experienced him in action to help elaborate and describe the concepts.
The famous theme song of the original television series The Mickey Mouse Club was entitled The Mickey Mouse March and was composed by the show’s affable host, Jimmie Dodd.
The first sentence of the song asks the question: “Who’s the leader of the club?”
While the response in the song lyrics is “Mickey Mouse”, everyone who worked for Disney Productions while Walt was alive knew the real answer was Mickey’s well-known alter ego, Walt Disney himself.
I hope that this book will prove to be an informative workbook of Walt’s leadership philosophy as well as an entertaining glimpse into a different perspective of his life.
I also hope that Walt’s words and actions will inspire a new generation, just as he inspired so many others in the past.
Once upon a time, approximately two hours before the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, was to officially open for that day, just as the sun had risen and there was still a slight coolness in the air, I was sitting quietly in the back of a bus with twenty employees from a pest control company located in the northeastern United States.
I was the facilitator for an expensive three-day program advertised as giving outside businesses an understanding of how Disney does it when it comes to managing people and providing legendary customer service.
It was the beginning of the second day of the program, and the participants had been fed a huge, tasty breakfast buffet and given a pen and a notebook. They now had an opportunity to see what the Walt Disney World property looked like early in the morning before the daily chaos began.
We were headed backstage to see the operation of the laundry facility that consistently demonstrated the highest morale and the lowest turn-over rate anywhere on WDW property. I would soon point out the specific reasons for this remarkable achievement, and how it was due not to money but to allowing direct involvement from the Cast Members in making decisions for their work location that resulted in this noteworthy situation.
As we drove under the waterway bridge that connects Bay Lake to the Seven Seas Lagoon and started up the incline by Disney’s Contemporary Resort, the owner of the business spoke to me from across the aisle.
His business was struggling and he feared he would need to eliminate staff and equipment in order to stay competitive. He had invested in this expensive program as a last-chance hope that he would find the magic “quick fix” that would allow him to continue to operate a business started by his father decades ago.
“Jim, I’ve been talking with the rest of my guys,” he began. “They are enjoying themselves and learning a lot. They especially appreciate that you have been so honest and not avoided any questions. We all find you very knowledgeable and entertaining.”
I smiled and thanked him, but I could clearly hear the “but” coming.
“But you keep talking about ‘story’ all the time, and we just don’t get it. We are not in the business of making cartoons or amusement parks, but you keep talking about the importance of story and how it makes Disney successful and different. Maybe I am just dense, but I don’t think this applies to us. Are we supposed to create a cartoon mascot or something?”
“It’s pretty simple,” I replied. “Tell me the story of your business.”
“We kill bugs.”
“If that is your story, then you are out of business in six months.”
“Oh,” he smiled. “We are at Disney. I forgot. ‘We kill bugs…real good.’”
“You are still out of business in six months. You are out of business because you don’t understand the story your customers want to hear.”
I could tell he was completely puzzled, so I continued.
“Try to imagine you are having a big dinner party and have invited people you want to impress. You have taken days to plan the menu and clean the house. Everything is immaculate. The table has a new, starched, bright white tablecloth covered with the most amazing food that has been arranged in such a way to emphasize maximum visual appeal.
“As you gather around this sparkling, spotless tableau, a little cockroach unexpectedly scampers from under one plate to another. What is the reaction? Do your guests think that they should avoid just those two plates, or has the entire dinner become suspect? What are they thinking about you and your habits?
“How do you feel? Do you feel that everything is now unsafe? Do you feel unclean? Do you feel that you are no longer in control of your own house?
“I don’t want you to come and kill that bug real good. I can kill the bug. I can buy a can of spray or something to crush it. I can hire any number of companies much cheaper than yours to come and kill the bug.
“I want you to make me feel safe again. I want you to make me feel safe, clean, and back in control. I want to be able to go back to sleep without any worry that there are bugs hiding where I can’t see them. The story I want to hear is that everything has been restored to the way it should be and will remain that way.”
He looked at me and then turned to look out the window.
I had been a junior high public school teacher for many years, so I was used to sharing amazing insights and getting no response whatsoever. In addition, the bus had now reached the laundry, and I moved to the front to lead the group inside and share the secret of how you don’t have to spend a penny to make your employees happy and productive. You just have to involve them in the decisions that affect them and listen to their ideas to solve problems in their area.
Six months later, I was sitting in my office cubicle preparing material for a group that would be taking a class later that week. My phone rang and I picked it up.
“We’re still in business,” said the voice at the other end.
Fortunately, the caller identified himself as the owner of the pest control company. I figured he was just calling to yank my chain that he was still in business. I was happy he was still in business.
“You don’t understand,” he emphasized. “We are still in business because we understand our story.”
“Well,” I said, “you better explain it to me because in another decade I will be writing a book about Disney business and those readers who have gotten this far are going to want to know an explanation so they can incorporate it in their own business.”
“It’s pretty simple,” he stated. “We cleaned up all our vans so that they are sparkling white and with no dents. We removed all excess logos and lettering. Just a small one on the door. Each driver is responsible every morning for checking the cleanliness of his van inside and out before he goes out on his calls.
“When we get to the owner’s house, inside the van on a hanger is a starched, long white jacket like you see doctors wear on television. The guy puts it on and goes to the house with a clipboard to introduce himself and patiently listens while the owner explains his concerns. We don’t interrupt. We look him in the eye, ask a few questions, make notes on the clipboard, and nod even though we already know what generally needs to be done.
“Then we spray around the outside of the house. These days that is powerful enough to stop bugs. It can be dangerous spraying inside a house, especially if there are pets or small children or exposed food.
“My guy goes back to the van and switches out the canister with that spray for one that looks exactly similar but has water scented with lemon. He goes into the house and sprays the bathroom, the kitchen, under the sink, into corners, wherever the home owner wants. It really does nothing but leave a fresh, clean smell, but the owner doesn’t know that. He just sees us spraying and listening to where he wants things sprayed.
“We are not cheating the owner. He gets the exact same guarantee we always give and enforce. A lot of owners, especially older ones, can’t quite understand that just spraying around the outside of the house is good enough.
“What they see is someone friendly and professional in a bright, clean white jacket who has taken time to pay attention to them and the interior of the house. They can literally smell the cleanness.
“Our business has increased so much that I can barely keep up, and will have to hire new employees and buy more vans. We even cut back on advertising because word of mouth was doing it for us, and we were getting repeat customers.”
At first glance, this pest control company was not offering anything that wasn’t offered at any other pest control company. Each company sprayed pretty much the same spray outside the house and gave the same guarantee. In fact, some of those companies offered a pest control service at a significantly lower price.
Yet people were eager to pay extra for this other service because they felt more secure and cleaner. The business had to invest more time at the location, prepare two canisters instead of one, and provide starched white jackets, but those small additions were more than compensated by the extra business and goodwill.
The pest control company had done exactly what Walt Disney himself did as a leader.
He understood the story his audience wanted to hear and how they wanted it told. He kept it simple, friendly, and with just a pinch of fun and showmanship. He communicated it clearly to his followers so they could make the dream a reality, and included them in the telling of the story.
Whether you are the leader of a hospital staff, a Little League baseball team, a restaurant crew, a church group, an animation studio, or any other type of business or organization, the skills consistently practiced by Walt Disney can help you to become a better, more effective leader.
It is all about the story.
The story of your business. The story of your employees. The story of your customers. And, most importantly, the story of you.
However, this particular story begins with the story of one of the greatest of storytellers, Walt Disney.
Once upon a time…
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for over three decades. He is also an award-winning teacher, a professional actor and magician, and the author of several books.
Korkis grew up in Glendale, California, right next to Burbank, the home of the Disney studios. As a teenager, Korkis got a chance to meet the Disney animators and Imagineers who lived nearby, and began writing about them for local newspapers.
In 1995, he relocated to Orlando, Florida, where he portrayed the character Prospector Pat in Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom, and Merlin the Magician for the Sword in the Stone ceremony in Fantasyland.
In 1996, Korkis became a full-time animation instructor at the Disney Institute teaching all of their animation classes, as well as those on animation history and improvisational acting techniques. As the Disney Institute re-organized, Jim joined Disney Adult Discoveries, the group that researched, wrote, and facilitated backstage tours and programs for Disney guests and Disneyana conventions.
Eventually, Korkis moved to Epcot as a Coordinator for the College and International Programs, and then as a Coordinator for the Epcot Disney Learning Center. He researched, wrote, and facilitated over two hundred different presentations on Disney history for Cast Members and for such Disney corporate clients as Feld Entertainment, Kodak, Blue Cross, Toys “R” Us, and Military Sales.
Korkis has also been the off-camera announcer for the syndicated television series Secrets of the Animal Kingdom; has written articles for several Disney publications, including Disney Adventures, Disney Files (DVC), Sketches, and Disney Insider; and has worked on many different special projects for the Disney Company.
In 2004, Disney awarded Jim Korkis its prestigious Partners in Excellence award.
If you have a question for Jim Korkis that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.
I was about 15 when I interviewed Jack Hannah with my little tape recorder and school notebook with questions printed neatly in ink. I learned to develop a very good memory because often when the tape recorder was running, people would freeze up. So, I sometimes turned off the tape recorder and just took notes which I later verified with the person. I always gave them a chance to review what they had said and make any changes. I lost a lot of great stories, although I still have them in my files for future generations, but gained a lot of trust.
I was very, very lucky. I was a kid, and it never occurred to me that when I saw their names in the end credits of the weekly Disney television show that I couldn't just find their names in the local phone book and call them up. Ninety percent of them were gracious, but there were about ten percent who thought it was a joke and that maybe one of their friends had put me up to phoning them.
It was like dominoes. Once I did one interview and the person was pleased, he put me in touch with others. After some of those interviews were published in my school paper and local newspapers, it gave me some greater credibility. Later, when they started to appear in magazines, I got even more opportunities.
JIM: You know, one of the proudest things for me about my books is that not a single factual error has been found.
To do my research, I start with all the interviews I've done over the past three decades, some of which are some available in the Walt's People series of books edited by Didier Ghezz. When necessary, I contact other Disney historians and authorities to fill in the gaps. And I have amassed a huge library of books, magazines, and documents.
When I moved from California to Florida, I brought with me over 20,000 pounds of Disney research material. The moving company that had just charged me a flat fee was shocked they had so severely underestimated the weight, and lost thousands of dollars. That was over fifteen years ago and the collection has only grown since that time.
About The Vault of Walt Series
JIM: I was fortunate to grow up in the Los Angeles area at a time when I had access to some of Walt’s original animators and Imagineers. They shared with me some wonderful stories. I wrote articles about their for various magazines and “fanzines” of the time. All of those publications are long gone and often difficult to find today.
As more and more of Walt’s “original cast” pass away, I realized that their stories had not been properly documented, and that unless I did something, they would be lost. Everyone always told me I should write a book telling these tales and finally I decided to do it.
JIM: She actually contacted me. Her son, Walter, loved the Disney history columns and articles I was writing and would send them to her. I was overwhelmed that she enjoyed them. She was appreciative that I tried to treat her dad fairly and not try to psycho-analyze why he did what he did.
She also liked that I revealed things she never knew about her father. As we talked and I told her I was doing the book, I asked if she would write the foreword. She agreed immediately and I had it within a week. She even invited me to go to the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and give a presentation. She is an incredible woman.
JIM: Obviously, the ones about her dad were a big hit. She especially liked the chapter about Walt and his feelings toward religion. She told me that it accurately reflected how she saw her dad act.
JIM: That’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. I tried to put in all the stories I loved because I figured this might be the only book about Disney I would ever write.
One chapter that I have grown to love even more since it was first published is the one about Walt’s love of miniatures. I recently found more information about that subject, and then on the trip to Disney Family Museum, I was able to spend hours examining some of Walt’s collection up close.
About Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?
JIM: I wanted to read a “Making of the Song of the South” book, but nobody else was ever going to write it. I wanted to know the history behind the production, why Walt made certain choices, and as many behind-the-scenes tidbits that could be told. I didn’t want to read a sociological thesis on racism.
Fortunately, over the years I had interviewed some of the people involved in the production, had seen the film multiple times, and had gathered material from pressbooks to newspaper articles to radio shows of the era.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Song of the South. I wanted to get the facts in print and let people make up their own minds.
JIM: I thought I knew a lot after being actively involved in Disney history for over three decades, but writing this book showed me how little I really know.
For example, I learned that it was Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck for decades, who did the whistling for Mr. Bluebird on Uncle Remus’ shoulder. I learned that Ward Kimball used to host meetings of UFO enthusiasts at his home. I learned that the Disney Company tried for years to make a John Carter of Mars feature. I learned that Walt himself tried to make a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. I learned that Disney operated a secret studio to make animated television commercials in the mid-1950s to raise money to build Disneyland. And so much more.
Even the most knowledgeable Disney fans will find new treasures of information on every page of this book.
JIM: Walt Disney was not racist. That is one of those urban myths which popped up long after Walt died, and so he was unable to defend himself.
In my book, I make it clear that Walt had no racist intent at all in making Song of the South. He merely wanted to share the famous Uncle Remus stories that he enjoyed as a child, and he treated the black cast with respect and generosity.
Many people don't realize that the events in the film take place after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction. So many offensive Hollywood films made at the same time as Song of the South, even one with little Shirley Temple, depicted the Old South during the Civil War in an unrealistic manner. Walt's film got lumped in with them, and he was a visible target for a much larger crusade.
With John Cawley:
In this excerpt, from "Leaders & Managers: Walt & Roy", Jim Korkis briefly contrasts the brothers' leadership styles. (In the book, each style is examined in much more detail.)
Many people and business related books use the terms “leader” and “manager” interchangeably.
They are wrong. In fact, they are so wrong that there are not enough “wrongs” in the English language to explain how wrong they are.
Leaders and managers have different skill sets and different purposes in a business. It truly is like comparing apples and oranges. One is not inherently better than another. To have a successful business, there needs to be both.
Most companies today are over-managed and under-led.
However, Walt himself realized he had challenges as a manager in handling day-to-day matters from paperwork to scheduling to budgeting that needed to keep the business functioning.
“For all his talent and drive in other areas, Walt was at least ambivalent toward the task of managing, and, at worst, side stepped it. He held at arm’s length many management decisions”, remembered Disney producer Harry Tytle.
Even Walt was aware of this aspect in his character, and deferred those types of decisions to his older brother Roy O. Disney.
“We started the business here in 1923, and if it hadn’t been for my big brother, Roy, I swear I’d have been in jail several times for bouncing checks. I never knew what was in the bank. Roy kept me on the straight and narrow”, recalled Walt.
However, Roy was not a charismatic or creative leader and faced many battles to complete the Walt Disney World project in Florida after the death of his brother because he lacked Walt’s skill of inspiring others to action.
Roy once told a group of reporters: “My brother dreams of castles but I am the one who has to actually build them.”
In this excerpt, from "Lesson Three: Take a (Calculated) Risk", Jim Korkis points out that even Walt Disney had occasional leadership flops, but instead of squashing future success, they made it more likely.
While the world still lauds Walt’s many achievements in so many different areas, Walt had some incredible flops during his lifetime.
Walt’s first animation studio, Laugh-O-Gram Films, went bankrupt shortly after being formed because Walt didn’t understand how to properly handle finances, including such simple things as what to properly charge for his product to make a profit and how to determine when payment was due.
All of these challenges with his first animation studio were resolved by the time he formed the Disney Brothers Studio in 1923. As a result, he had the only successful animation studio on the West Coast for many years.
Walt was involved with the Celebrity Sports Center in Denver, Colorado. It was a family-oriented entertainment venue with bowling lanes, pinball machines, a fifty-meter pool with three water slides, a shooting gallery, a billiard room, and more. It was a disappointing failure.
However, the training and experience that Disney executives got while working at that venue were put to good use when they relocated to the Florida Project that became Walt Disney World. They had learned how to manage an entertainment venue with attractions and food and beverage sales.
Walt suggested that the Storybook Land Canal Boats at Disneyland should have a Big Rock Candy Mountain as a grand finale. Imagineer John Hench was finally able to convince him it would be a sickeningly sweet experience for Disneyland visitors just before the project was put into production.
Walt and his staff learned that not every new addition was a good idea. If something new was put into Disneyland, it needed to be better than what was there before the addition.
So the next projects that Walt and his team worked on became the first “E-Ticket” attractions at Disneyland: Submarine Voyage, the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Monorail.
Walt insisted on a circus at Disneyland with a separate admission price because Walt loved the circus. Its failure has become notorious in Disney history, losing close to $375,000 in the few weeks it existed. In the tent that seated roughly two thousand people for each performance, barely five hundred guests at most would attend.
Walt learned from this experience what was the core appeal of Disneyland. People did not come to Disneyland to see a circus or pay a separate price to do so, especially when they could see a real, more elaborate circus elsewhere. People came to Disneyland to see Disneyland.
After that experience, Walt said that: “Disneyland is the star! We’re just supporting players.”
In another example, Walt’s first live-action musical film, Babes in Toyland, did poorly at the box office, both financially and critically. The lessons learned from the mistakes made in producing that film were applied just two years later to the next Disney live-action musical film, Mary Poppins, which became a major box-office success.
These missteps are rarely if ever remembered because Walt’s successes were so grand and so many that they overshadowed his mistakes.