Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Creative Leadership

There are hundreds of books written about him, his leadership style, and his legacy. For example, search him in you will find almost 49,000 options. If you narrow your search to books only a whopping 17,500 books are available to read. Narrow it further to biography only and you find 160 different biographies about him including a Spanish version and a Tamil version.

Who is this person that has inspired such a prolific quantity of text? And what was the impetus for the current $36.1 billion dollar empire attributed to his legacy? (Igler, 2010) Pat Williams, senior vice president of the Orlando Magic, would say this infamous leader is Walt Disney and his “magic ingredient” is his Creativity.

J.B. Kaufman, film historian and coauthor of the film Walt in Wonderland said “You can’t think of Walt Disney without thinking of creativity. That was his leading quality. His mind was always seeking new and creative ways to do things. He wouldn’t let anything or anyone limit this scope of his vision, and he never lost his capacity to dream in a big way.” (Kaufman) Joe Grant, an artist who worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the original and new Fantasia said that “[Walt] had an astounding creative awareness...He was thinking and creating on many different levels, at all times. It was exciting and stimulating to be around him, because ideas were constantly whirling around him…You began to inhabit his world of ideas.” (Grant)

But were Disney’s unique ideas enough to create an American icon in Mickey Mouse, found an empire that spans nearly every continent, and inspire a legacy of leadership? Amabile (1998) said that creativity alone is not enough. “To be creative, an idea must also be appropriate – useful and actionable.” (Amabile, 1998)

Pat Williams, author of How to be like Walt, said that it was just Disney’s unique ideas that made him so successful; it was his ability to dream and then do, to conceptualize and the actualize. “Walt is remembered to this day, not because he dreamed, but because he created and constructed what he had dreamed.” (Williams, 2004) Disney pushed himself and his team to constantly work hard, work creatively, and to push the limits of the possible.

Williams says the real power of Disney’s creativity came in the face of adversity. Disney’s original creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, as well as most of his staff, was stolen by a business associate. It is said that instead of responding destructively or rebelliously, Disney responded to the challenge creatively. It was on the train ride home from the fateful meeting in New York when Disney learned Oswald had been swindled and his staff team had deserted, that Mickey Mouse was born. “Mickey was not merely the right idea at the right time; he was the creative solution to a crisis in Walt’s life.” (Williams, 2004)

Disney and the company he created satisfies the necessary requirements of creativity established in Amabile’s article. (Amabile, 1998) Disney himself was inventive, intrinsically motivated, and became an expert in animation. He created an enterprise that encouraged those same attributes in his staff. He constantly set a new challenge to his team, gave them the freedom to accomplish it, shared resources to foster success, encouraged diversity of thought, and embraced the ‘failure value’.

Disney embodies several of the attributes that DePree (1992) identified as Leaders’ Leaders. Specifically, Disney remained “vulnerable to real surprise,” “worked with creative people without fear,” “remained wary of incremental change,” and “set an example for openness and imagination and acceptance.” (DePree, 1992)

Ultimately, Disney did not believe that creativity was for the elite only or simply an innate trait born in the womb. He believed that creativity is a skilled to be learned and nurtured. He challenged his team to push to new heights, create new ideas, and to do the impossible. Walt Disney said “If you can dream it, you can do it.” That is the power of his influence, the power of his leadership.

Works Cited

Amabile, T. (1998). How to Kill Creativity. Harvard Business Review , 78-87.

DePree, M. (1992). Leaders' Leaders. In M. DePree, Leadership Jazz (pp. 93-108).

Grant, J. (n.d.). Interview with Joe Grant. (P. Williams, Interviewer)

Igler, R. (2010, January 1). 2009 Year in Review - Letter to Shareholders. Retrieved October 27, 2010, from Corporate Disney:

Kaufman, J. (n.d.). Walt in Wonderland. (P. Williams, Interviewer)

Williams, P. (2004). How to be like Walt. Deerfield Beach, FLorida: Health Communications Inc.

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