What Apple Can Learn From Walt Disney

No one knows how long Steve Jobs will be absent from the helm of Apple. The challenge for Apple one day–hopefully decades from now–is to find a new CEO. Steve Jobs is irreplaceable, as was another innovator-entrepreneur, Walt Disney.

Apple Disney

No one knows how long Steve Jobs will be absent from the helm of Apple. The challenge for Apple one day–and I hope it is decades from
now–is to find a new CEO. Right now the decision would be straightforward.
Tim Cook, the current COO, is a skilled operations man, and according to The New York Times very much “in charge” at
Apple. He is the ideal person for the job.


Finding a replacement for Steve Jobs, as the Times noted, the breakthrough
innovator, dealmaker and person of influence, is frankly impossible. And so
Apple would do well to forget trying to find one. Rather, as many have pointed
out, it would be wise to turn to a committee of people to do what Jobs has

Steve Jobs is irreplaceable as was another innovator-entrepreneur,
Walt Disney. He began his career as a cartoonist but early in his career turned his talents to thinking and creating and running a creative department. The
Walt Disney Company became the tour de force in animation. Walt’s genius was in
storytelling and in getting so many other talented artists to go along with his
ideas and work together. He shepherded the Imagineers, creative types who
thought out of the box but were willing to work collaboratively to create the
most exciting entertainment products their day.

Disney was also restless. If you could create fantasies on
celluloid, couldn’t you do it in real life? Thus was born Disneyland where so
many of his characters came to life in 3D in the form of walking characters and
amusement park rides. Disney also created and hosted a television series on ABC
as a means of promoting the park as well as finding an outlet for the many
Disney films, including specially produced nature films.


Disney’s attention to detail ensured that his park would not
be the sleazy carny style he knew from boyhood but would be very different. Customers
were called “guests” and cleanliness, service and hospitality were paramount. When
Walt died in 1966, plans for his next big thing, Disney World in Orlando, were
well under way. The park opened in 1971. A succession of CEOs ran the company as caretakers,
doing what Walt would do operationally but not what he would do creatively.
They were not innovators.

It took a new generation of management, headed by Michael
Eisner, to take the Walt Disney Company to new horizons. Eisner’s lieutenant,
Jeffrey Katzenberg, let the company’s return to producing animated features. It
also expanded its theme parks and found new sources of revenue in merchandising
its characters and in the steady release of its film library on videotape and
later DVD.

The company acquired Capital Cities, which owned ABC
television and ESPN. [It even bought Pixar, a company headed by Steve Jobs.] Eisner
unlike Disney eventually drove off senior talent and was replaced by Robert
Iger. Today the Walt Disney Company remains an icon force in entertainment,
theme parks and retail.


Walt Disney, like Steve Jobs, was a once in a lifetime
executive. Companies do not replace them. They prepare for their departure by
promoting the cadre of people of many different talents and do what Walt did
better than anyone–get them all to work together to create something valuable
that consumers will want to experience.

That challenge will be one that will define Apple’s future.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s newest book is 12
Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert Your Authority to Lead
. (Amacom 2010). Readers are welcome to visit John’s website,