Walt Disney – A Transformational and Charismatic Leader


“When someone manages to implant himself in American culture and the American psyche as deeply as Walt Disney did, analysts naturally look for explanations.”  (Gabler, 2008, p. 7.) 

Walter Elias Disney was one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century.  He was an innovator and revolutionary in many areas of entertainment, business and education that reach far beyond animation, film, television, amusements parks and a certain iconic mouse.  An enigmatic leader, he was feared as much as he was revered, and his leadership style took on many forms throughout his long and often turbulent tenure.  Throughout his career, he navigated his companies and employees through the impact of the post-World War I economic boom, the Great Depression and World War II.  He was the first movie mogul to harness the potential, rather than succumb to the threat, of television; and he revolutionised the amusement park in ways that continue to shape our culture on a global scale.  Even NASA admitted that Disney’s fervent enthusiasm for its space program was instrumental in drumming up support for space exploration (Gabler, 2008).


Early Career

As a child in Kansas City, a 9 year old Walt and his brother Roy were bound by their father’s paper route, waking at 3:30am to load and deliver papers and leaving school half an hour early each day for the afternoon run.  It was brutal work for a young child, with Walt often trudging through ice and snow and sneaking a sleep in warm apartment foyers.  Despite this, Walt believed the hardships of the six years of constant work helped to forge his character, saying that he “developed an appreciation of what spare time I did have and used it to great advantage in my hobbies.”  (Gabler, 2008, p. 21)  The physical and emotional demands of the paper route stayed with Walt throughout his life, giving him nightmares and causing him to ruminate on his lost childhood.  The influence of childhood experiences and family helps to forge a personal identity that greatly influences a leader’s character, hence the significance of these experiences in the formation stage of Walt’s leadership career.  (Gronn, 1999).

As Walt grew, he seemed to rebel against his father, becoming his antithesis in many ways.  At school, he was not the best student, no doubt due to the extreme tiredness he felt due to his paper route, but he was wildly enthusiastic.  He was extroverted and quick witted, yet a dreamer with a great imagination who was obsessed with drawing, using his skills to impress his fellow students.  He realised that most people found him charming and attractive and he used this to his advantage.  In Kansas City, Walt began to “create the idea of Walt Disney – the idea of someone who beat poverty, hardship and neglect.”  (Gabler, 2008, p. 32)  These were the early incarnations of the Charismatic aspect of Walt’s future leadership style, where a powerful personal magnetism allows leaders to charm or influence others (Bligh & Kohles, 2010).

Unfortunately, Walt was a poor financial manager and tried a variety of ways to keep the business afloat.  Eventually at the age of 21, he claimed bankruptcy and moved to the bright lights of Los Angeles.  There, together with his brother Roy, they forged the Disney Brothers Studio and attracted a small group of talented artists.   These early years were when the Transformational aspect of Walt’s leadership journey were formed.  He was an excellent communicator who had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve and the drive and determination to realise his vision.  As Bass & Riggio (2006) posit, transformation leaders can be charismatic, as Walt was, yet not all charismatic leaders are transformational.  Transformational leaders bring out the best in their followers, engaging them and exploiting their full potential (Mulla & Krishnan, 2011).  Walt certainly brought out the best in his loyal artists, as they collaborated on exciting new projects, developing concepts and storylines together.  Walt built trust and respect amongst his staff and motivated and stimulated his staff to be innovative and creative.  These are some of the important aspects of Transformational leadership as discussed by Bass & Riggio (2006).  As Walt created an environment of democracy and social empowerment, he demonstrated a “power with” model of transformative leadership (Blase & Anderson, 1995).

The success of “Oswald the lucky rabbit” would eventually lead to one of the defining moments of Walt’s career that haunted him throughout his life.  As Oswald became more successful, Walt took on more of a supervisory role which led to clashes with his distributor.  Tired of Walt’s controlling ways, the distributor approached one of Walt’s former disgruntled employees to take over the studio and replace him.  Disney had become dispensable at his own company, and many of his employees had betrayed him.  After hearing the devastating news at a meeting in New York and forced to start over, he vowed to make changes and never work for anyone again, and on a fateful train journey from New York to Los Angeles, Mickey Mouse was born.

By 1929, Walt Disney had employed 28 of the best animators at the new “Walt Disney Enterprises.”  The most substantial change from the old company to the new company was Walt’s expectation of excellence.  His high standards pushed the animators to their limits and he “insisted on quality from individuals of whom it had never been required; he inspired commitment.”  (Gabler, 2008, p. 135)  His Transformational leadership style was more fully developed as his employees were motivated to go above and beyond expectations (Bass & Riggio, 2006).  He had learned from his past failures and took great interest in his employee’s personal lives and challenges, demonstrating Individualised consideration, another important aspect of Transformational leadership.  Disney had an “ability to make people feel that what he wanted done was a terribly important thing to get done.”  (Gabler, 2008, p. 164.)   He magnified his charisma, and was revered and spoken of in quasi-religious terms, yet despite this, he prided himself on being “one of the guys” and maintained the informal, first-name basis of his community.  Sadly, sometimes charismatic leaders become victims of their own success (Bligh and Kohles, 2010) and this was to be true of Disney.  “Everyone was so desperate to please him, you’d do anything to get his approval.”  (Gabler, 2008, p. 212.)

Walt still had a very paternal management style and made sure employee’s working conditions were exemplary.  During the 1930’s period of the Great Depression, when most of America was struggling, Walt was paying his employees a relative fortune and had grown his staff to a happy unit of more than 500.  The animators were ambitions and full of optimism as they began work on “Snow White” with many buoyed and immensely proud of the revolutionary technical achievements the studio was making.  Employees demonstrated a sense of commitment and a collegiate approach to their work, collectively developing ideas and stories and pooling their talents for the good of the company.  Disney was now a Transformational leader in every aspect: He showed idealised influence, having earned the trust and admiration of his staff; inspirational motivation where he was able to motivate his staff to see and support his vision for the company; intellectual stimulation where his staff were driven to be innovative and creative in their work; and individualised consideration, where the needs and individuality of each staff member were understood and supported (Bass & Riggio, 2006). After the unprecedented popularity and success of “Snow White,” output from the studio drastically increased, with work beginning on “Bambi,” “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.”  However, the necessary move to bigger and more extravagant premises in Burbank led to Walt’s isolation from his employees as conditions became “too perfect” and cracks began to show.  Now there were three separate units working on three different projects, which led to rivalries and competition that ruined the collegiate atmosphere of the old studio (Gabler, 2008).

By the early 1940s, Walt was less visible and less engaged with his staff, and union pressure and discontent from staff led to a devastating strike.  Walt had tried to use his charisma and rhetoric to address the employees and explain the financial pressures of the company (Heracleous & Klaering, 2014); however it was not enough and the strike lasted more than three months, destroying the spirit of the company and resulting in a downsizing of staff from 1200 to 694 (Gabler, 2008).  Walt was also prone to using his charisma in a more negative way eschewing the “mantle of responsibility inherently implied for the charismatic leader” (Owen, 2015, p. 2).  Walt became vindictive and cruel to his employees, and the onset of World War II did nothing to help, as the studio devoted itself entirely to the war effort.  The post-war studio did not have the resources for the same level of commitment as was required to produce films of the quality of “Snow White” and Walt himself said, “We’re through with caviar.  From now on it’s mashed potato and gravy” (Gabler, 2008, p. 423).  While the film studio may have lost its appeal, something even more significant was on the horizon for Walt Disney, as he finalised plans for his most revolutionary contribution to the entertainment world, Disneyland.

Late Career

The promise and challenge of Disneyland was now his priority and it consumed him.  At the studios, he become even more volatile and, as one employee described it, “Walt Disney, who had long been a distant and terrifying presence, had become even more distant and even more terrifying” (Gabler, 2008, p. 542).   Disneyland opened in 1955 and provided Walt with something the film studios were unable to– it would never be finished and he could keep expanding and perfecting his vision.  Everything was under his control, and he created the “Disney University” to train the theme park’s staff and indoctrinate them into the Disney philosophy.  “Cast members” were hired who were specifically suited to their “on stage” roles, and they had to be perfectly groomed and cheery at all times, consistently playing their part in the story.  Walt was a constant presence at the park, even staying in a hidden apartment on site in Main Street, where he would sometimes be spotted overwhelmed with emotion at the window as he looked over his utopia.  The apartment is furnished exactly as it was during Walt’s life, and the light in the window is now permanently left on as a tribute.  He often wandered the park in disguise, ensuring that guests were receiving the very best experience, even going as far as turning up at 4am to load oranges into the juicing machines (Gabler, 2008).  Disneyland completely revolutionised family entertainment and amusement parks and was Walt’s primary focus now.

Disney’s Legacy

Walt was always conscious of his legacy, delegating more and more responsibility, and reorganising his various companies to ensure they would thrive after he was gone.  At the time of his relatively sudden death from lung cancer in 1966, he was well into the planning of Walt Disney World in Florida, and spent his last night alive feverishly going through his ideas with his brother, Roy (Gabler, 2008). He had also begun planning for CalArts which is now a thriving Arts university and which was to be Walt’s most significant legacy. To this day, Walt’s innovations with regards to the day-to-day operation of his theme parks have set the standard for customer service all around the world.  Cast members in all of the Disney parks around the world continue to be trained in the Disney philosophy and must maintain very strict “show quality standards.”  Their uniforms are timeless in style, many being similar to those used in 1955 and Walt’s belief that the parks would “never be finished” has rung true, as there are constantly new lands and innovations being redeveloped all over the world.  His legacy is felt in many ways and he can still truly be identified as one of the most influential figures of the 20th and 21st centuries.  It is impossible now to conceive of a world without Disney’s overwhelming influence, all of which started with a mouse.


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Heracleous, L., & Klaering, L. A. (2014). Charismatic Leadership and Rhetorical Competence. Group & Organization Management, 39(2), 131-161. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/doi/full/10.1177/1059601114525436

Mulla, Z. R., & Krishnan, V. R. (2011). Transformational Leadership. Journal of Human Values, 17(2), 129-143. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.1177/097168581101700203

Owen, N. (2015). Charismatic leadership. Training Journal, 28-31. Retrieved from http://gateway.library.qut.edu.au/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/docview/1791906581?accountid=13380

Raven, B. (2008). The Bases of Power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 8(1), 1-22. doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2008.00159.x

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