The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of The Walt Disney Company
By Robert Iger
Random House, 2019
In the early 1980s, Disney was in trouble. Its movies weren’t resonating with the public. It had invested a lot of money into a theme park – EPCOT Center – that wasn’t meeting expectations. Having lost touch with public tastes, Disney had become a target for corporate raiders, who were looking to buy the company to dismantle it. It was a sad time for Disney fans and shareholders.
It seems hard to believe, given that Disney is now the largest and most powerful entertainment company in the world. The change in the company’s fortunes can be attributed mostly to the leadership of two men: Michael Eisner, who was Disney’s CEO from 1984-2005, and Bob Iger, who succeeded him. Now the latter has written a leadership guide in the guise of a memoir that explains how he did it.
I’m wary of most corporate leader memoirs – especially if they’re in the entertainment industry. These folks are often masters of public relations, and their memoirs tend to be carefully crafted to burnish their public images. These books often come across as being in service to their authors’ egos. Mr. Iger’s book is the opposite. He often discusses how keeping his ego in check has been essential to his leadership style. He’s frank about his mistakes and gracious in sharing the praise for his successes.
The successes have been many. The Disney company has grown considerably during his tenure, mostly through the acquisition of four companies: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox. The book covers each of these transactions in-depth, devoting a chapter to each. It also covers the company’s transition from Mr. Eisner’s leadership, which was a fraught and contentious time. As the second-in-command during a difficult stretch at the company, Mr. Iger wasn’t seen as the obvious successor. That he was hired for the job came down to his formulating a clear three-part strategy for the company:
- Devoting most of its time and capital to creating high-quality branded content (i.e., intellectual property),
- embracing technology, even at the cost of disrupting existing businesses, and
- becoming truly global.
In hindsight, these may seem like obvious directions for the company, but the book does an excellent job of conveying how challenging it can be for organizations to accept large-scale change. Disney is a company that values its past, which can make it difficult for it to transform itself. It’s to Mr. Iger’s credit that he recognized early on how technological changes were posed to disrupt Disney’s business and put the company ahead of the curve.
All of this sounds like standard business leader memoir territory. What pushes this book above the norm is the fact that Mr. Iger has extracted concrete lessons from his career and articulated them succinctly throughout the book. An appendix at the end compiles these lessons. This makes The Ride of a Lifetime more than a memoir; it’s an engaging guide to good leadership produced by a good leader with real-world credentials.