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Mickey Mouse Management

Why is Disney such a lightning rod for so much attention? Why do so many of us stop and rubberneck the latest headline about the Magic Kingdom? Is the whole drama playing to our base voyeuristic instincts as we read about the Eisner vs. Ovitz (and Katzenberg before him) vs. Shareholder vs. the Ghost of Walt or whatever the battle du jour is? Are we gloating about how power and greed really does corrupt, and it’s nice to see perpetrators of either get their comeuppance?

Why is Disney such a lightning rod for so much attention? Why do so many of us stop and rubberneck the latest headline about the Magic Kingdom? Is the whole drama playing to our base voyeuristic instincts as we read about the Eisner vs. Ovitz (and Katzenberg before him) vs. Shareholder vs. the Ghost of Walt or whatever the battle du jour is? Are we gloating about how power and greed really does corrupt, and it’s nice to see perpetrators of either get their comeuppance?

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I think something else is going on. I think we are drawn into Disney’s corporate drama because we identify with much of what is going on there. Most of us are capable — and culpable — of having fear and greed and loathing override our more informed and loftier actions. Let he who has never cut a corner, shot from the hip, thrown her weight around, pushed the envelope, refused blame, hidden from retribution, and done an ill-informed favor for a friend cast the first stone. We are drawn to Disney because we say to ourselves, “There but for the grace of God go I. Learn from their mistakes. Clean up your act before this happens to you.”

The problem is the too familiar out of sight, out of mind dissipation that occurs with the results that our good intentions are not followed by commitment and actions to doing anything differently. What started out as a glaring red warning flag turns into, “It’ll never happen to me,” or “Yeah, I know it’s important, I’ll get around to it.” But not to worry, within one to two weeks there will be another piece on Disney and another chance to take the hint and learn from their mistakes and avoid committing the same ones yourself.

What is the lesson we can learn from Disney? I recently re-read William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies. I could not help but notice the parallel to the current situation that Disney finds itself in. Without a parent or at least someone providing adult supervision, cooperation has turned into cutthroat competition. Civility has become combativeness. And all for one, one for all has changed to every man for himself.

Stated another way, successful companies require key ingredients: brightness, smartness, talent, and steadfastness. But what holds everything together is wisdom. Without wisdom, a company may endurem but as Jim Collins might say, it will never go from good to great. At Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg was the talent (he could make things happen), Michael Eisner was the smartness (he could make money), Roy Disney was the steadfastness (slow and steady wins the race), the Board had a collective brightness ( with high IQ’s in no short supply), and Frank Wells was the wisdom. He was what Collins would describe as a Level 5 leader, someone who pauses and shoots from his head rather than shooting from his hip, who knows and does the right thing rather than having to be right, who is much more about making the company more successful than about accumulating and hoarding power.

By commanding the respect of all parties, Frank Wells was able to keep the other players from engaging in their truth-or-dare, zero-sum game jockeying for power that in the long run hurts any company. When Frank Wells died suddenly in a helicopter skiing accident, Disney lost its wisdom and its centerboard. Without his steadying presence, the Disney boat was left to the mercy of battling egos. Without Wells and the centering function he provided, Disney became a desert island in the corporate world and was reduced to a Lord of the Flies scenario.

Brightness, smartness, talent, and steadfastness are all necessary for success, but without wisdom the other elements will not be enough to guarantee the long-term success of a company. What is wisdom? Think of the wise people you’ve been fortunate to know. Didn’t they know what was relevant, important, meaningful, lasting, and worth fighting for? Instead of being know-it-alls who push their weight around, they are terrific listeners, gather all the data, and, in fact, are pretty close to knowing it all.

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Early stage companies can succeed up to a point without wisdom. At this point, they are fueled by opportunity. When unmitigated brightness, smartness, and talent are given opportunity, it’s like turbocharging a tricycle. Be it a young company or a young child, there is all kinds of energy, but it may not know where it’s going or how to get there. This may explain the phenomenon of founder flounder that occurs so frequently in companies, in which the founder whose vision started the company may have had the brightness, smartness, and talent to get it going, but doesn’t know how to keep it going. That know-how comes only from experience.

Consider Steve Jobs, Act 1 and Act 2. In Act 1, he and Steve Wozniak started Apple, but didn’t have the maturity to keep it going. Enter John Sculley, who had the competence to keep it going, but not the vision to keep it growing. Enter Steve Jobs, Act 2, a wiser, more circumspect model, and voila, Apple is once again flourishing.

If you have more than your share of talent, brightness, and smarts, don’t outsmart yourself. Make sure you also have a possessor of wisdom to keep everyone pulling together in the same direction — instead of pulling apart.

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