Graceful Leadership Like Walt Disney

By Mark Bowser

Famed Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar shares a fascinating story in his book Dream It! Do It!  of the graceful leadership expressed by Walt Disney.  As the story goes, one day Walt walked out of the Disney Studio Animation Building into the bright California sunshine.  As habit in those days, Walt pulled out his lighter to light his cigarette only to find that the lighter was defective and wouldn’t ignite.

Seeing Walt’s predicament, Ken Anderson promptly came to his boss’ rescue.  Ken was one of Disney’s great story and character genius’ on the animation team.  As he lit Walt’s cigarette with his own lighter, his lighter became too ambitious and Walt’s mustache caught on fire.  If that wasn’t bad enough, a large portion of the animation staff had witnessed the fiery debacle.

As you can imagine, Ken didn’t sleep very well that night.  He tossed and turned and could only imagine the worst.  The next day around noon, Ken’s nightmare became reality when he was summoned to Walt’s office.

Ken knew his days were numbered at the Disney Studios.  In his mind, he went through his resume thinking of who he could get a job with after Walt fired.  When Ken arrived at Walt’s office, the legendary studio head was waiting for him.  Walt said to Ken with a bright smile on his face, “Come on Ken –let’s go to lunch.”  Walt then led Ken to the Disney commissary where they found a table and broke bread together.

Now, that is graceful leadership in action.  By that time, Ken’s tragedy would have already spread like wild fire around the studio.  Everyone knew about it.  Walt understood this.  Taking Ken out to lunch would have been nice…but taking him to lunch in the Disney cafeteria where everyone could see them and experience the forgiveness for themselves was priceless.  Walt put back together Ken’s credibility with the animation staff.  It also lifted up Walt’s leadership too.  People knew that Walt could be demanding.  That he expected quality and their absolute best.  But, they also knew that they were loved and didn’t have to be perfect.  Hmmm, just some food for thought.

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