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  • Writer's pictureAlexandria Zech

Walt Disney as Servant Leader

Walter Elias Disney was an innovator and a dreamer. He was also an exceptional leader. From his pallet of skills and qualities, he exemplifies numerous characteristics of leaderships such as: vision, communication and people skills, boldness, and a humble heart. He was often referred to as a “perfectionist,” “inspirational,” and “fearless” by his friends and colleagues.

Walt was also known as somewhat of an authoritative leader, a stern taskmaster and was known to not give compliments very easily or often. But no matter of his method of leadership, there is no mistaking that he was a visionary architect. And from that, Walt can teach us several thought-provoking ideas about leadership:


Walt himself has explained his formula for having leadership vision as starting with one simple stepping stone, “I dream.” If we don't dream or desire to have a vision for something better for ourselves or others, then what is it that gets us out of bed every morning?

He then continues on by saying, “I test my dreams against my beliefs.” In this case, he was making sure his dreams were consistent with everything he stood for, such as his beliefs, core values, and integrity.

Next, he explains, “I dare to take risks.” He would act boldly and bet on himself to win. There were a few times in Walt’s life where he would bet his entire studio on producing an animated film and, due to his vision, charisma, and leadership style, he repeatedly came out on top. Lastly, he said, “I execute my vision to make those dreams come true.” Walter would focus all his time, talents, energy, and resources to make the dream a reality.


To create memorable animated films and, later on, the first ever theme park, Walt had to emulate his legendary films and be animated in the leadership sense. There have been stories told by some early Disney Studios employees explaining how Walt would demonstrate his ideas for a new animated film.

He would gather everyone together in the studio, then act out the entire movie sequence to personally show what he envisioned the story to be and give his artists direction. He brought the story to life and in doing so, he lit the path of creativity and opened his employees' minds to possibility.

We may not be illustrating for animated cartoons, but we can each be as lively, energetic, and enthusiastic about our work as Walt was. If you strive to bring positive energy into the work place and refuse to live in a watered-down, repetitive environment, then you’re one step closer to being like Walt.


Walt was a salesman. Possibly one of the greatest salesman the world has ever known. You can have a dream, but if you can’t SELL the dream then it won’t come true. Dreams take people, money, and resources, to become a reality. Fortunately for Walt, his incredible people skills allowed him to do just that.

One day Walt attended a board meeting for a company that he wanted to sponsor his Autopia attraction. He convinced the board that it was a great investment and they wrote him large check right then and there. After Walt had shaken hands and left, one board member, who had been so drawn to Walt’s love and enthusiasm for the project, said, “I have a question. What did we just buy??” Scenes like this play over and over again throughout Walt’s career.

There are five great characteristics of a leader that Walt shows us throughout his career:

Honesty Have integrity, honesty and live off repeat business.

Enthusiasm Be enthused about your product. Walt motivated his employees and was constantly encouraging them.

“Walt's enthusiasm made over-achievers out of all of this.”

-Norman Palmer

Confidence Be the kind of leader that instills confidence in your employees.

Courage It takes courage to look outside of yourself. One of the scariest things in life can be letting go of the image of yourself that is right in front of you and reaching for something further.

“Walt was completely focused on his product and his goals, not on himself.”

-Craig Hodgkins. Persistence Nothing that is worthwhile is easy.


Walt and his brother Roy Disney were the perfect dynamic duo. Walt had the creative ideas and spent most of his time with the Disney Studio artists. In contrast, Roy was a well educated financial advisor and preferred to spend his time with lawyers and accountants. Yet, these differences didn't hinder the Disney brothers; rather, they complimented each other. It was the way these brothers collaborated with each other that made them such a successful team. Every Walt needs a Roy and every Roy needs a Walt.


Above all, what truly makes a great leader is someone who is willing to serve. Walt served in countless ways. To name a few, he personally took a co-worker's reluctant paraplegic friend to Disneyland. He rolled out the red carpet and showed his guest all the attractions as well as front row seats to every show. All this just so a disabled friend could enjoy the park without feeling left out in his wheelchair.

He became a father figure to his secretary and gave her away at her wedding. Moreover, he paid for the entire reception.

A gardener at the Disney studios left some tools in an empty parking space and a producer chewed him out for it. Walter noticed this from his window, went down and said,"Don't you ever treat any of my employees like that! This man has been with me longer than you have, so you'd better be good to him!"

To his employees, Walt was not just a leader, he was their servant and defender.

Principles Disney Used in His Leadership Approach

  1. Believe in yourself. Each time Disney succeeded, he used the achievement as a building block for his next big idea or, rather, risk. The fact that nobody else had done it was never a hindrance to Disney.

  2. Don’t lose sight of what you are. As what Disney said, “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.”

  3. Chase your dream. Disney would have said this statement better as, “Wish upon a star.” He wanted to entertain families, and he did just that better than anyone else for more than 30 years.

  4. Go big or go home. In Disney’s case, he went big and then went to Walt Disney World. In fact, his brother and his wife tried to persuade him to stop “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, but he still pursued his plans. People thought that he was crazy to buy thousands of acres of swamp land near Orlando, which is not known by most people, until now.

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