The Ride of a Lifetime

Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company


  • On Amazon
  • ISBN: 978-0399592096
  • My Rating: 8/10

What is it about?

In The Ride of a Lifetime the author talks about his career and the lessons learned along the way. He started his career at American Broadcasting Company and, after its acquisition, continued it at The Walt Disney Company, where he became CEO and served in this role for 15 years.

The book is split into two parts of about equal length: the time before he became CEO of The Walt Disney Company, and the 15 years afterwards as its CEO.

My impression

I enjoyed The Ride of a Lifetime and liked the glimpse behind the scenes of one of the most iconic US companies (almost) everyone knows. And I found it interesting to see how some of the deals (Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox) were done that made Disney to what it is today.

Unfortunately, the author wrote the book too early, unaware, that the probably biggest challenge of his career was still to come: the Covid-19 pandemic. Maybe one day there will be an update...

My notes


[...] I tend to approach bad news as a problem that can be worked through and solved, something I have control over rather than something happening to me. But I'm also all too aware of the symbolic power of Disney as a target, and the one thing that weighs heavily on me is the knowledge that no matter how vigilant we are, we can't prepare for everything.

When the unexpected does happen, a kind of instinctive triage kicks in. You have to rely on your own internal "threat scale". There are drop-everything events, and there are others when you say to yourself, This is serious, I need to be engaged right now, but I also need to extricate myself and focus on other things and return to this later. Sometimes, even though you're "in charge", you need to be aware that in the moment you might have nothing to add, and so you don't wade in. You trust your people to do their jobs and focus your energies on some other pressing issue.

We have a system that tracks employees whenever a disaster occurs. If there's a plane crash or a hurricane or a wildfire, I get reports on who's unaccounted for, who's had to evacuate their homes, who lost a friend or relative or pet, whose property was damaged. We have well over two hundred thousand employees around the world, so if something catastrophic happens, the odds aren't insignificant that one of our people has been touched by it.

As I [...] think back on what I've learned, these are the ten principles that strike me as necessary to true leadership [...]:

  • Optimism. One of the most important qualities of a good leader is optimism, a pragmatic enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Even in the face of difficult choices and less than ideal outcomes, an optimistic leader does not yield to pessimism. Simply put, people are not motivated or energized by pessimists.
  • Courage. The foundation of risk-taking is courage, and in ever-changing, disrupted businesses, risk-taking is essential, innovation is vital, and true innovation occurs only when people have courage. This is true of acquisitions, investments, and capital allocations, and it particularly applies to creative decisions. Fear of failure destroys creativity.
  • Focus. Allocating time, energy, and resources to the strategies, problems, and projects that are of highest importance and value is extremely important, and it's imperative to communicate your priorities clearly and often.
  • Decisiveness. All decisions, no matter how difficult, can and should be made in a timely way. Leaders must encourage a diversity of opinion balanced with the need to make and implement decisions. Chronic indecision is not only inefficient and counterproductive, but it is deeply corrosive to morale.
  • Curiosity. A deep and abiding curiosity enables the discovery of new people, places, and ideas, as well as an awareness and an understanding of the marketplace and its changing dynamics. The path to innovation begins with curiosity.
  • Fairness. Strong leadership embodies the fair and decent treatment of people. Empathy is essential, as is accessibility. People committing honest mistakes deserve second chances, and judging people too harshly generates fear and anxiety, which discourage communication and innovation. Nothing is worse to an organization than a culture of fear.
  • Thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness is one of the most underrated elements of good leadership. It is the process of gaining knowledge, so an opinion rendered or decision made is more credible and more likely to be correct. It's simply about taking the time to develop informed opinions.
  • Authenticity. Be genuine. Be honest. Don't fake anything. Truth and authenticity breed respect and trust.
  • The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection. This doesn't mean perfectionism at all costs, but it does mean a refusal to accept mediocrity or make excuses for something being "good enough". If you believe that something can be made better, put in the effort to do it. If you're in the business of making things, be in the business of making things great.
  • Integrity. Nothing is more important than the quality and integrity of an organization's people and its product. A company's success depends on setting high ethical standards for all things, big and small. Another way of saying this is: The way you do anything is the way you do everything.


Starting at the Bottom

As I grew older, I became more aware of my father's disappointment in himself. He'd led a life that was unsatisfying to him and was a failure in his own eyes. It's part of why he pushed us to work so hard and be productive, so that we might be successful in a way that he never was.

I didn't have a clear idea of what "success" meant, no specific vision of being wealthy or powerful, but I was determined not to live a life of disappointment. Whatever shape my life took, I told myself, there wasn't a chance in the world that I was going to toil in frustration and lack fulfillment.

The job description was pretty simple: Show up whenever they needed me, for whatever task. Often that meant being at a studio at 4:30 A.M. for "lighting calls". Soap opera sets were set up the night before a shoot, and my job was to let in the lighting director and stagehands long before the sun came up, so the lights would be in place when the director and actors arrived for their first run-throughs.

[...] I learned to tolerate the demanding hours and the extreme workload of television production, and that work ethic has stayed with me ever since.

To this day, I wake nearly every morning at four-fifteen, though now I do it for selfish reasons: to have time to think and read and exercise before the demands of the day take over. Those hours aren't for everyone, but however you find the time, it's vital to create space in each day to let your thoughts wander beyond your immediate job responsibilities, to turn things over in your mind in a less pressured, more creative way than is possible once the daily triage kicks in.

Roone taught me the dictum that has guided me in every job I've held since: Innovate or die, and there's no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new or untested.

His mantra was simple: "Do what you need to do to make it better." Of all the things I learned from Roone, this is what shaped me the most. When I talk about this particular quality of leadership, I refer to it as "the relentless pursuit of perfection". In practice that means a lot of things, and it's hard to define. It's a mindset, really, more than a specific set of rules. It's not, at least as I have internalized it, about perfectionism at all costs [...]. Instead, it's about creating an environment in which you refuse to accept mediocrity. You instinctively push back against the urge to say There's not enough time, or I don't have the energy, or This requires a difficult conversation I don't want to have, or any of the many other ways we can convince ourselves that "good enough" is good enough.

In your work, in your life, you'll be more respected and trusted by the people around you if you honestly own up to your mistakes. It's impossible not to make them; but it is possible to acknowledge them, learn from them, and set an example that it's okay to get things wrong sometimes. What's not okay is to undermine others by lying about something or covering your own ass first.

Be decent to people. Treat everyone with fairness and empathy. This doesn't mean that you lower your expectations or convey the message that mistakes don't matter. It means that you create an environment where people know you'll hear them out, that you're emotionally consistent and fair-minded, and that they'll be given second chances for honest mistakes.

Betting on Talent

I learned from them [Tom Murphy and Dan Burke] that genuine decency and professional competitiveness weren't mutually exclusive. In fact, true integrity – a sense of knowing who you are and being guided by your own clear sense of right and wrong – is a kind of secret weapon. They trusted in their own instincts, they treated people with respect, and over time the company came to represent the values they lived by. A lot of us were getting paid less than we would have been paid if we went to a competitor. We knew they were cheap. But we stayed because we felt so loyal to these two men.

Their business strategy was fairly simple. They were hypervigilant about controlling costs, and they believed in a decentralized corporate structure. Meaning: They didn't think every key decision should be made by the two of them or by a small group of strategists in corporate headquarters. They hired people who were smart and decent and hardworking, they put those people in positions of big responsibility, and they gave them the support and autonomy needed to do the job. They were also tremendously generous with their time and always accessible. Because of this, executives working for them always had a clear sense of what their priorities were, and their focus enabled us all to be focused, too.

My instinct throughout my career has always been to say yes to every opportunity. In part this is just garden-variety ambition. I wanted to move up and learn and do more, and I wasn't going to forgo any chance to do that, but I also wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing things that I was unfamiliar with. Tom and Dan were the perfect bosses in this regard. They would talk about valuing ability more than experience, and they believed in putting people in roles that required more of them than they knew they had in them. It wasn't that experience wasn't important, but they "bet on brains", as they put it, and trusted that things would work out if they put talented people in positions where they could grow, even if they were in unfamiliar territory.

Know What You Don't Know (and Trust in What You Do)

There's nothing less confidence-inspiring than a person faking a knowledge they don't possess. True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.

Managing creative processes starts with the understanding that it's not a science – everything is subjective; there is often no right or wrong. The passion it takes to create something is powerful, and most creators are understandably sensitive when their vision or execution is questioned. I try to keep this in mind whenever I engage with someone on the creative side of our business. When I am asked to provide insights and offer critiques, I'm exceedingly mindful of how much the creators have poured themselves into the project and how much is at stake for them. I never start out negatively, and unless we're in the late stages of a production, I never start small. I've found that often people will focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty. And if the big picture is a mess, then the small things don't matter anyway, and you shouldn't spend time focusing on them.

[...] a delicate balance is required between management being responsible for the financial performance of any creative work and, in exercising that responsibility, being careful not to encroach on the creative processes in harmful and counterproductive ways. Empathy is a prerequisite to the sound management of creativity, and respect is critical.

[...] if you want innovation – and you should always – you need to give permission to fail.

Enter Disney

When the two people at the top of a company have a dysfunctional relationship, there's no way that the rest of the company beneath them can be functional.

Managing your own time and respecting others' time is one of the most vital things to do as a manager [...].

[...] those instances in which you find yourself hoping that something will work without being able to convincingly explain to yourself how it will work – that's when a little bell should go off, and you should walk yourself through some clarifying questions. What's the problem I need to solve? Does this solution make sense? If I'm feeling some doubt, why? Am I doing this for sound reasons or am I motivated by something personal?

Second in Line

As a leader, you should want those around you to be eager to rise up and take on more responsibility, as long as dreaming about the job they want doesn't distract them from the job they have.

It's important to know how to find the balance – do the job you have well; be patient; look for opportunities to pitch in and expand and grow; and make yourself one of the people, through attitude and energy and focus, that your bosses feel they have to turn to when an opportunity arises. Conversely, if you're a boss, these are the people to nurture – not the ones who are clamoring for promotions and complaining about not being utilized enough but the ones who are proving themselves to be indispensable day in and day out.

At its essence, good leadership isn't about being indispensable; it's about helping others be prepared to possibly step into your shoes – giving them access to your own decision making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve, and [...] sometimes being honest with them about why they're not ready for the next step up.

It's a tricky thing, moving people over to your side and enlisting their enthusiastic engagement. Sometimes it's worth talking through their reservations and patiently responding to their concerns. Other times you simply need to communicate that you're the boss and you want this done. It's not that one approach is "nice" and the other isn't. It's just that one is more direct and nonnegotiable. It really comes down to what you believe is right for the moment – when a more democratic approach is useful both in getting to the best outcome and in building morale, and when you have enough certainty in your opinion that you're willing to be an autocrat even in the face of disagreement.

Good Things Can Happen

Michael had plenty of valid reasons to be pessimistic, but as a leader you can't communicate that pessimism to the people around you. It's ruinous to morale. It saps energy and inspiration. Decisions get made from a protective, defensive posture.

[...] optimism in a leader, especially in challenging times, is so vital. Pessimism leads to paranoia, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to risk aversion. Optimism sets a different machine in motion. Especially in difficult moments, the people you lead need to feel confident in your ability to focus on what matters, and not to operate from a place of defensiveness and self-preservation. This isn't about saying things are good when they're not, and it's not about conveying some innate faith that "things will work out". It's about believing you and the people around you can steer toward the best outcome, and not communicating the feeling that all is lost if things don't break your way. The tone you set as a leader has an enormous effect on the people around you. No one wants to follow a pessimist.

It's About the Future

A company's culture is shaped by a lot of things, but this is one of the most important – you have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly. In my experience, it's what separates great managers from the rest. If leaders don't articulate their priorities clearly, then the people around them don't know what their own priorities should be. Time and energy and capital get wasted. People in your organization suffer unnecessary anxiety because they don't know what they should be focused on. Inefficiency sets in, frustration builds up, morale sinks.

You can do a lot for the morale of the people around you (and therefore the people around them) just by taking the guesswork out of their day-to-day life. A CEO must provide the company and its senior team with a road map. A lot of work is complex and requires intense amounts of focus and energy, but this kind of messaging is fairly simple: This is where we want to be. This is how we're going to get there. Once those things are laid out simply, so many decisions become easier to make, and the overall anxiety of an entire organization is lowered.

I can't overstate how important it is to keep blows to the ego, real as they often are, from occupying too big a place in your mind and sapping too much of your energy. It's easy to be optimistic when everyone is telling you you're great. It's much harder, and much more necessary, when your sense of yourself is being challenged [...].


The Power of Respect

Don't let your ego get in the way of making the best possible decision.

If you approach and engage people with respect and empathy, the seemingly impossible can become real.

Disney-Pixar and a New Path to the Future

People sometimes shy away from taking big swings because they assess the odds and build a case against trying something before they even take the first step. One of the things I've always instinctively felt [...] is that long shots aren't usually as long as they seem.

"A few solid pros are more powerful than dozens of cons", Steve said. [...] Steve was great at weighing all sides of an issue and not allowing negatives to drown out positives, particularly for things he wanted to accomplish.

It's perhaps not the most responsible advice in a book like this to say that leaders should just go out there and trust their gut, because it might be interpreted as endorsing impulsivity over thoughtfulness, gambling rather than careful study. As with everything, the key is awareness, taking it all in and weighing every factor – your own motivations, what people you trust are saying, what careful study and analysis tell you, and then what analysis can't tell you. You carefully consider all of these factors, understanding that no two circumstances are alike, and then, if you're in charge, it still ultimately comes down to instinct. Is this right or isn't it? Nothing is a sure thing, but you need at the very least to be willing to take big risks. You can't have big wins without them.

Marvel and Massive Risks That Make Perfect Sense

By 2008, when we began looking into them in earnest, Marvel was a publicly traded company, with Ike as its CEO and controlling shareholder. We spent about six months trying to get a meeting with him and got nowhere. You'd think it wouldn't be that difficult for the CEO of one company to arrange a meeting with another, but Ike didn't do anything that he didn't want to do, and because he was so secretive, there were no direct channels to him.

Marvel's offices confirmed Ike's reputation. They were spartan. His own office was tiny and unadorned: a small desk, some chairs, small tables and lamps. No expensive furniture or sweeping view, very little on the walls. You'd never know that it belonged to the CEO of an entertainment company.

Ike was noticeably wary of me, but he wasn't cold or uninviting. [...] When I sat down he offered me a glass of water and a banana. "From Costco", he said. "My wife and I shop there on weekends."

The movie business can be both thrilling and maddening. It doesn't operate like other traditional businesses. It requires making bet after bet based on nothing but instinct. Everything is a risk. You can have what you think is a great idea and the right team assembled, and things can still get derailed for a whole host of reasons that are often beyond your control.

Firing people, or taking responsibility away from them, is arguably the most difficult thing you have to do as a boss. There have been several times when I've had to deliver bad news to accomplished people, some of whom were friends, and some of whom had been unable to flourish in positions that I had put them in. There's no good playbook for how to fire someone, though I have my own internal set of rules. You have to do it in person, not over the phone and certainly not by email or text. You have to look the person in the eye. You can't use anyone else as an excuse. This is you making a decision about them – not them as a person but the way they have performed in their job – and they need and deserve to know that it's coming from you. You can't make small talk once you bring someone in for that conversation. I normally say something along the lines of: "I've asked you to come in here for a difficult reason." And then I try to be as direct about the issue as possible, explaining clearly and concisely what wasn't working and why I didn't think it was going to change. I emphasize that it was a tough decision to make, and that I understand that it's much harder on them. There's a kind of euphemistic corporate language that is often deployed in those situations, and it has always struck me as offensive. There's no way for the conversation not to be painful, but at least it can be honest, and in being honest there is at least a chance for the person on the receiving end to understand why it's happening and eventually move on, even if they walk out of the room angry as hell.

Surround yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do. You can't always predict who will have ethical lapses or reveal a side of themselves you never suspected was there. In the worst cases, you will have to deal with acts that reflect badly on the company and demand censure. That's an unavoidable part of the job, but you have to demand honesty and integrity from everyone, and when there's a lapse you have to deal with it immediately.

Star Wars

The worst thing you can do when entering into a negotiation is to suggest or promise something because you know the other person wants to hear it, only to have to reverse course later. You have to be clear about where you stand from the beginning.

Typically, the price we pay for assets doesn't vary much from what we believe the value to be in the first place. It's often possible to start low and hope to pay far less than what you're valuing an asset at, but in the process you risk alienating the person you're negotiating with.

[...] in general, you have to try to recognize that when the stakes of a project are very high, there's not much to be gained from putting additional pressure on the people working on it. Projecting your anxiety onto your team is counterproductive. It's subtle, but there's a difference between communicating that you share their stress – that you're in it with them – and communicating that you need them to deliver in order to alleviate your stress.

If You Don't Innovate, You Die

The decision to disrupt businesses that are fundamentally working but whose future is in question – intentionally taking on short-term losses in the hope of generating long-term growth – requires no small amount of courage. Routines and priorities get disrupted, jobs change, responsibility is reallocated. People can easily become unsettled as their traditional way of doing business begins to erode and a new model emerges. It's a lot to manage, from a personnel perspective, and the need to be present for your people – which is a vital leadership quality under any circumstances – is heightened even more. It's easy for leaders to send a signal that their schedules are too full, their time too valuable, to be dealing with individual problems and concerns. But being present for your people – and making sure they know that you're available to them – is so important for the morale and effectiveness of a company.

When you innovate, everything needs to change, not just the way you make or deliver a product. Many of the practices and structures within the company need to adapt, too [...].

No Price on Integrity


Core Values

[...] it's not always good for one person to have too much power for too long. Even when a CEO is working productively and effectively, it's important for a company to have change at the top. I don't know if other CEOs agree with this, but I've noticed that you can accumulate so much power in a job that it becomes harder to keep a check on how you wield it. Little things can start to shift. Your confidence can easily tip over into overconfidence and become a liability.

I can't emphasize enough how much success is also dependent on luck [...].