Disney CEO Bob Iger Shares His Approach to Leadership at UCLA Awards Gala

Disney CEO Bob Iger
Disney CEO Bob Iger
 

Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, shared a secret at the end of an interview Thursday evening in Beverly Hills, where he was presented with the John Wooden Global Leadership Award by Judy Olian, Dean of the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

“Mickey Mouse turned 85 on Monday,” said Iger. “I’m not supposed to mention his age because we say he’s ageless, but he was introduced as Steamboat Willie in 1928.”

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Iger said Mickey Mouse is more than a symbol; he is also an example of lasting success. “He’s the number one character in the world today in terms of licensed merchandise,” added Iger, “85 years after he was created.”

Iger was interviewed in front of a full ballroom at the Beverly Hilton that included Disney Media Networks co-chair Anne Sweeney, TV and film producer Jerry Bruckheimer, TV producer Vin Di Bona, Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins, CEO of Maker Studios and former chairman of Endemol Ynon Kreiz and Iger’s wife, TV correspondent Willow Bay and their two teenage sons.

The award and evening honored the memory of the late John Wooden, who as a championship basketball coach, teacher and leader at UCLA showed the path to achieving success with integrity. Iger joins a list of prestigious past recipients including Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and Peter Ueberroth, now of the Contrarian Group.

Iger spoke with ABC News correspondent Cecilia Vega, in what was billed as a “leadership discussion.”

Iger said in many ways he is a coach just as Wooden was. “The stars are the people we actually put on the playing field that have created so much value for the company over the years,” explained Iger. “But when those stars fail, it is often the coach who takes the blame really, and that goes with the territory too.”

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Vega reeled off statistics that show just how good a coach Iger has been. She said a $100 investment in Disney made the day Iger took over as CEO in 2005 today is worth $320, and the shareholder return has been 220 percent. Then she asked how he keeps up that kind of success.

Iger said it starts with a great team and then it is about finding ways to keep them in the “relentless pursuit of perfection and winning “the right way.” That means working hard and being creative but never putting the integrity of the company on the line.

Even then, added Iger, success itself can be a trap: “Success can breed all kinds of other behavior and cause companies to behave a certain way that isn’t necessarily the ingredients for achieving more success. For instance, with success comes arrogance and that’s typically the death of success.”

Vega quoted Wooden, who said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. If you don’t give people the chance to fail, you won’t innovate.”

“Many of our businesses are creatively driven; actually all of them at some point,” said Iger. “And with creativity comes inevitable failure. The failure rate in our business is actually fairly high. It just comes with the territory because there is no science in creativity. A lot of that comes from people’s instincts and their own creativity.”

“I’ve certainly had a number of failures along the way depending on my own instincts and creativity, some fairly celebrated, at least during their time.”

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Iger recalled when he was running programming for ABC in 1990 and he decided to put on a musical drama. Today with Glee and other shows, it is being done, but then it was seen as a terrible idea. The show was called Cop Rock and it lasted only 11 weeks on the network.

Iger said the lesson of that failure, and others, is that -- as Wooden said -- you have to try. And as the manager or coach, you have to create an environment where it is okay to take risks carried out in good faith. He said there also has to be “an opportunity for that person to come back and try again and not get excoriated, not get penalized for having taken that risk and failed, because it was an honest risk to take, an honest mistake.”

Iger recalled his first year at ABC, when he was only 23, and he was asked by his supervisor to do things that he personally did not think were being done in good faith, and weren’t even honest. He said he tried to figure out how to expose what he considered wrongdoing but it got back to his boss.

“He called me in and accused me of spreading rumors about him,” said Iger, “when I knew the rumors happened to be based in fact. He told me I wasn’t promotable and I had two weeks to find another job somewhere in the company or I was gone. Fortunately, I was able to find another job in the company. They didn’t think I wasn’t promotable, I guess.”

“He was ultimately led out of the building in handcuffs,” said Iger, adding, “so I was vindicated.”

“It is pretty incredible that a company Walt Disney created 90 years ago last month is still vibrant and still a relevant brand,” he said. “Actually it is more relevant today than it has ever been, because the beauty of technology is that it enables us to access more people and more people can access the products we make. So our brand actually enters so many more people’s lives today.”

Olian also presented Wooden Leadership Award fellowships to two Anderson School students, Jordanna Mora and Elliot Ling, that are based on leadership contributions, academic merit and financial need.

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