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Bob Iger, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned From 15 Years as CEO of The Walt Disney Company

By Marvin Zonis

Bill Gates recently told me (and millions of other subscribers to his www.gatesnotes.com) that he would recommend Bob Iger’s book, The Ride of a Lifetime, “whether they’re looking for business insights or just want a good read…” But, Bill Gates continued, “It’s still the case that the best business book I have ever read is Business Adventures, a little-known collection of articles by a reporter named John Brooks.”

Well, Brooks’ book is so “little known” that I had not previously heard of it.

More to the point, the best business book I had ever read was Lou Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? (as my former students will no doubt recall).

Gerstner succeeded John Sculley as CEO and Chairman of IBM and served from April 1993 until 2002.

In 1992, IBM had lost $8.10 billion, more than any company in history. (Back then $8.10 billion was real money.)

The IBM Board, desperate for a savior, turned to Gerstner. His career to that point had been a succession of stunning achievements. He was (and remains to this day) the youngest person to have been made a partner at McKinsey. He went on to work for American Express credit cards and became CEO of its travel division. He was the CEO of the largest business merger until then – Nabisco and RJR.

The desperation of the Board was clear because Gerstner knew nothing about technology, as he made very clear to their search committee. Yet they persisted and seemed to have convinced Gerstner by arguing that the fate of IBM was crucial for the future of the United States itself.

When he took over, he famously said that “the last thing IBM needed , was a vision.” Instead, he argued, it needed execution, decisiveness, speed and simplification for breaking IBM’s decision-making gridlock.

After he took over, he came to believe that IBM, virtually uniquely, could offer complete IT solutions to business problems – that IBM was able to integrate computer technologies for businesses. He ended any thought of breaking up IBM as Sculley had proposed. He fired 100,00 employees. He was shocked to learn that IBM employed more than 70 different advertising agencies. He fired them all and hired back only one.

The list of what he did goes on and is very long. During his tenure, the market capitalization of  IBM went from $29 billion to $168 billion. He made the “elephant” dance.

His skill and sensitivity and artistry resulting in the stunning turnaround of IBM made his book my favorite.

But it seemed to me that denying the importance of Gates’ recommendation of books by both Brooks and Iger was foolish. So I ordered both and have now read Iger.

His The Ride of a Lifetime is now hands down my favorite business book.

The central difference between Gerstner’s and Iger’s books is that Iger makes explicit what Gerstner leaves implicit --  the principles of his leadership.

When you read Iger, you learn of the decisions he made. But you also learn of the principles which guided those decisions, what he refers to as

those principles necessary for “true leadership.”

You don’t have to wait long. The ten principles are listed not only on the paper cover of the book but also in the book’s prologue. Here they are.

  • Optimism
  • Courage
  • Focus
  • Decisiveness
  • Curiosity
  • Fairness
  • Thoughtfulness
  • Authenticity
  • The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection
  • Integrity

(I hope the students in my leadership classes will recognize these principles as central to my own teachings on leadership.)

In addition to these cardinal principles, Iger also presents an Appendix with “. . . the lessons that shaped my professional life.” There follows 45 bullet points of “lessons.” Here are just two.

*Now more than ever: innovate or die. There can be no innovation if you operate out of fear for the new.

*Don’t be in the business of playing it safe. Be in the business of creating possibilities for greatness.  

Put simply: I am bowled over by Iger’s book. It would be a great accomplishment for him merely to have been able to articulate the principles that guided his leadership. But his accomplishment is all the greater because he links these principles and lessons to actual decisions he made as CEO of Disney and tells great stories about those decisions.

And what decisions he made.

Iger made decisions to open new Disney theme parks – Shanghai foremost among them. (He tells us that in pursuit of that dream he made 40 trips to China in 18 years and 11 in the 6 months before the opening of the park.)

Iger made decisions to fire people . He tells the story of how he cancelled the Roseanne show on ABC despite “how much I’d grown to like” her. Roseanna had sent out a tweet in May of 2018 that Valerie Jarrett, a very close adviser to President Obama, was the product of “the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes.” He fired Roseanne because “We have to do what’s right. Not what’s politically correct, and not what’s commercially correct. But what’s right.”

Iger bought companies – His four key purchases were Pixar from Steve Jobs in 2006 for $7.4 billion; Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for $4 billion; Lucasfilm from George Lucas in 2012 for $4.055 billion; and much of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox for $71.3 billion in 2019. He not only bought them but even more impressively successfully integrated the acquisitions into Disney.

Under Iger’s leadership, Disney was a smashing financial success.

(From Disney SEC Filings. https://qz.com/1808700/under-bob-iger-disney-took-over-the-world/)

Iger explicitly thanks the many people from whom he learned. His parents, of course. Both (!) his wives. His children. But many, many others. From Roone Arledge of ABC to Michael Eisner, his predecessor as Disney CEO. From Steve Jobs to Senator George Mitchell, the Chair of the Disney Board. From Dan Burke and Tom Murphy of Cap Cities to many of his colleagues over the years at ABC and Disney.

Of course Iger did not get to run Disney without towering ambition. But he seems to have managed to have kept that in check – never crushing others to benefit his own rise.

Bob Iger stepped down unexpectedly as CEO of Disney on February 26, 2020 and will remain as Executive Chairman until the end of 2021.

His book, I imagine, will remain indefinitely as my favorite book on business leadership.