Why Bob Iger's Disney Success Comes With Some Awkwardness

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Robert Iger

The CEO is about to become the most powerful mogul in Hollywood history, but columnist Stephen Galloway notes that he also has suffered a string of executive scandals and public relations blowups in recent years.

I sort of feel sorry for Robert Iger. 

Sure, the Disney chairman and CEO seems to have everything going for him. At 67, he has a terrific job and an even more terrific bank balance (he earned $36 million last year alone and reportedly could make $400-plus million in the next few years); he’s got a booming theme-park business and some of the most profitable assets in television; he’s had a string of box-office hits (A Wrinkle in Time and Solo: A Star Wars Story be damned); he’s as smart as he’s good-looking and has a bright and beautiful wife, Willow Bay, the dean of USC’s Annenberg School. Oh — and if 21st Century Fox’s shareholders vote today to sell Disney most of their holdings, he’s poised to become the most powerful mogul in Hollywood history. Who wouldn’t want to be Bob Iger?

Not me.

I don’t just mean because, deep down, he’s as human as the rest of us, with good days and bad days and moments of grouchiness as well as grandeur. And I don’t mean because every night, when he tries to get to sleep, his mind must swarm with a million missed opportunities — the chance to outshine those blathering amateurs vying to become California’s next governor; or, better still, to take on our reality-star president, as Iger seriously considered before re-upping last year at Disney. Think toying with those Star Wars gadgets is fun? Not when you could have been toying with Putin.

Regrets, we all have a few. And if mine are on a somewhat smaller scale than getting rid of the gold accessories in the White House or telling Vladimir he should be impaled, that doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize. It’s tough being on top. Only a handful of other people truly know what it’s like, and most of them are out to kill you.

But that’s not why I feel sorry for Iger. It’s that, despite the great press he’s been getting, a question must secretly be gnawing at him: how come so much has gone wrong? 

Think about it: with all his success, there’ve been an awful lot of controversies and scandals in the past few years.

First there was that succession fiasco when Iger named Tom Staggs his heir-apparent after a bake-off that led Staggs’ rival, Jay Rasulo, to exit the company. Perhaps Iger felt he owed Staggs, who’d saved him from choking on a chicken bone (he cracked his boss’s rib while executing a Heimlich maneuver); still, eyebrows shot up when Iger told his lieutenant in 2016 that he was no longer in line for the top job. Staggs departed and he was never replaced. At a time when conglomerates are as big as some countries, shouldn’t we know who the next Crown Prince is going to be?

Then came the John Lasseter affair. Admittedly, Iger did exactly the right thing: he suspended his longtime animation guru, the architect of Pixar’s phenomenal success and of the Disney Animation Studios revival, while a thorough investigation was launched into alleged harassment. When the verdict was a thumbs-down, Iger agreed to sacrifice Lasseter, regardless of any potential creative and financial damage. All well and good, except for this: why didn’t he act sooner? Even I, barely knowing Lasseter, often wondered if his Hawaiian shirts and aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-big-kid demeanor — not to mention the thousands of toys that lined the walls of his office — didn’t hide a darker side.

Same with ESPN chief John Skipper. The executive’s sudden resignation in December, following his revelation of a blackmail plot related to a drug problem, caught almost everyone by surprise. Now, I know there are functioning addicts who hide their addiction awfully well. But if you’re running a public company with only a few direct reports, why wasn’t there at least one underling who spotted signs of trouble?

Perhaps knowing such things isn’t the most important quality of a CEO. But an awareness of past pitfalls is. Anyone who lived through the nightmare of Roseanne 101, when the out-of-control comedienne ran havoc during her years on the 1988-97 sitcom Roseanne, might have guessed she was a disaster waiting to happen. And yet Disney got into business with her anyway, apparently disregarding racist and anti-Semitic tweets and other comments out there for all to see. Didn’t anyone warn Iger that Roseanne was a ticking time bomb and dangerously out of sync with his storied brand? 

That’s not all. What about those sexual harassment allegations against Disney Theatrical Group president Tom Schumacher? Or the news that a Bachelorette contestant had been convicted of battery? Or the outcry following revelations about low wages paid to Disneyland staff? Or the backlash from the banning of Los Angeles Times journalists in response to the paper’s investigation into Disney’s cozy relationship with the city of Anaheim?

And what about, most recently, the firing of James Gunn as director of the latest Guardians of the Galaxy, right after a slew of tweets from years ago resurfaced, all known and readily available if anyone had cared to look? Admittedly, the Gunn episode can’t compare with another director scandal that hit Disney in the mid-1990s, when Powder’s Victor Salva turned out to have served time for molesting an underage boy. Still, isn’t a background check part of the hiring process? 

These were largely unforced errors, but they were also the kind of mistakes that might have prompted a serious shake-up or internal review. None proved terminal, and Iger has retained his halo, thanks to Disney’s growth and financial success. Like many others, I remain awed by the scope of his imagination and his ability to execute big-ticket deals. The Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and now Fox acquisitions are breathtaking in their boldness.

But here’s my fear: little mistakes lead to big ones. In the corporate world, like the crime world, the “broken windows” theory holds true — that you’d better nip small crimes in the bud if you wish to prevent bigger crimes from happening.