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Why My Boss, Walt Disney, Was The Ultimate Business Leader

The star of the recent film Floyd Norman: An Animated Life writes about an iconic entrepreneur on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Why My Boss, Walt Disney, Was The Ultimate Business Leader
Walt Disney

When Walt Disney passed away 50 years ago, on December 15, 1966, the world of entertainment lost a visionary innovator who never seemed to run out of ideas. He began his career as a scruffy young filmmaker in Kansas City and in time he would migrate to Hollywood where he would confound his critics by building a creative empire.

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Floyd Norman

Even with his success, Disney regretted not having a college education. Yet, his business skills would soon be evident. A man of his time, Walt Disney had the scrappy determination of an American entrepreneur and totally believed success could be found through hard work and the sincere belief in a dream. However, even the business of magic is still business. A totally self-taught tycoon, he could easily have taught business-school graduates a thing or two. He knew his audience better than anyone. He never called them customers. They were his guests.

Much like Steve Jobs, who Floyd Norman later worked for at Pixar, Walt Disney could intimidate his employees–but he also inspired them

So, how does one manage magic? I can’t think of a better example than my old boss. We called him “The Old Maestro” because Disney conducted his remarkable enterprise from his Tinseltown podium. Much like the Sorcerer in Fantasia, he wielded his baton like a magic wand. With a confident wave, Disney could command a platoon of living broomsticks or turn a little wooden puppet into a real boy. He could teach an elephant to fly or transform a pumpkin into a glistening silver carriage.

Confident with his movie product, Walt fearlessly entered the medium of television when other Hollywood studio executives deemed it a threat to their business. He recognized an ally when he saw one and was determined to use the emerging new platform to sell his product. I arrived at the studio in the ’50s, during what could only be called a creative explosion. Along with his live-action and animated film product, Walt had embraced television and created the first theme park in nearby Anaheim. As far as he was concerned, the sky was the limit.

The decade of the ’60s provided more creative and business opportunities, and Disney met them head on. He partnered with the New York City World’s Fair in 1964 and pondered the construction of a ski resort in California’s High Sierras. A new theme park in Florida was on his agenda along with what might be called the biggest gamble of his career. No longer satisfied with simply providing entertainment venues, the Old Maestro began planning something he called EPCOT–“Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”–on the vast properties he had acquired in the southern state.

By caprice, I found myself working with Walt Disney in 1966 on what would be his final film, The Jungle Book. Seriously ill, with only months to live, he continued his role as creative leader. Not a person on our team was the wiser about the limited time he had left, because the Old Maestro worked with the same furious determination that characterized him earlier in his career. Then without warning, he was gone.

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Walt Disney’s remarkable enterprise continues to enjoy success. Yet, I’d venture few at his amazing magic factory know much about the man who cofounded the company with his older brother Roy. Some may have childhood memories of the avuncular television host who introduced fanciful stories about princesses and bunny rabbits. Some might consider him a P.T. Barnum-like pitchman who sold fanciful dreams to an eager public. However, there was nothing cynical about Walt Disney. He truly believed in his special mix of business and magic. Lucky for us, we believed it as well.

Floyd Norman got his start in the animation business as an apprentice artist on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959). He later contributed to the story for Jungle Book (1967); cofounded Vignette Films, which produced animation for everything from Sesame Street to Soul Train; and did story work for Pixar’s Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc., among many other credits.

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