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The Wisdom of Walt: Leadership Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth


My first visit to Walt Disney World was when I was about eight or nine. I can’t remember my exact age but from the pictures and my memories I know that I wasn’t too much older than that. I can remember arriving when the park opened and leaving when the park closed (with my sister doing cartwheels in the parking lot on the way out.) Since then I’ve been blessed to visit Walt Disney World several more times and I’ve even been able to visit Disneyland.

While those visits are magical experiences and something that I recommend to everyone whether they are young or old, with children or without – there’s another part of the story that remains hidden to most people. There’s the man that was Walt Disney and his legacy in leadership and how he left the world better than he found it despite the struggles. That’s what The Wisdom of Walt is all about – how he shared his wisdom with the world.

Love Letters

In my review of Primal Leadership I mentioned that a friend of mine described the Walt Disney Family Museum as a love letter from a daughter to her father. In reading The Wisdom of Walt I felt a similar thing, which is a deep admiration for a man who struggled and fought and ultimately won – the hearts and minds of the nation and the world. I won’t claim to be any sort of an aficionado on Walt or his life. Like most folks I’ve picked up snippets along the way and I’ve been curious about a man who made the animated film industry and remade the amusement park industry.

What I sensed in Jeffrey Barnes’s writings was that deep sense of awe when you get to meet your hero. While not having literally met Walt Disney, I think by studying so deeply and having such a keen interest in the things that drove Walt, he got to touch a bit of that greatness.

Into Every Life a Little Rain Must Fall

Most folks when they think of Walt, think of the movies and the theme parks. They don’t know that everyone thought Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would fail (it was the first full length animated movie.) No one remembers that everyone thought Disneyland was never going to make it. Most don’t know about the bankruptcy of Laugh-O-Gram Studios. They haven’t heard of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit or how the character came to be stolen from Walt.

Brene Brown calls it gold plating grit when we fail to acknowledge the struggles that we have and instead rush to the happy ending. While Walt seemed ever the optimist, he wasn’t without his struggles and his mistakes. Walt’s own mother died because of a faulty furnace in a house he bought for his parents. It wasn’t that Walt didn’t struggle to sell his dreams, it was really that he never quit. While speaking about working with the banks on the financing of Disneyland he mentioned that “dreams offer too little collateral.”

It seems fitting to share that Walt – like all of us – struggled. He wasn’t immune to the human condition but perhaps he was conditioned to the desire to make the human condition better. He wasn’t trying to entertain the critics – he was trying to entertain the public and make their lives a little brighter in the process.


Nostalgia is a powerful force. Whether you’re a past-positive or past-negative time focused person – or neither – nostalgia holds a powerful draw. (See The Time Paradox for more on time perspectives.) I’ve also mentioned before that time has the tendency to wash away the negatives and leave behind positive memories of colleagues that you’ve worked with in the past. Somehow even though you might have fought with them before the fact that they were in the same situation as you bonds you to them.

Main Street USA, the entryway to the parks, is designed to elicit and leverage nostalgia. The street is roughly reminiscent of the downtown streets that our parents grew up with. Little shops where people sold things and where community was formed — one soda and one haircut at a time.

Park Before the Park

Walt knew about creating experiences. To him the pre-show was as important as the show. That’s why the parking lot was like an “outer lobby” to him. He knew that the guest experience starts the moment they arrive. He wanted to set the stage for wonder and amazement much like having comedians before the main act warms up the crowds. (See I am a Comedian for more.)

People don’t want an amusement park. They want a way to step into a fantasy world where they can’t see, hear, or feel the problems that plague them in the real world. The process of stepping into that fantasy starts not at the moment of the front gate where their ticket is taken or money is exchanged. Instead, the fantasy starts at the first moment that it can. In the case of Disneyland it was the parking lot.

At Disney World the step into the fantasy starts while still miles away. Grand signs welcome visitors to Disney World while they’re driving in. These signs move the guests one step closer to the fantasy that they want as an escape from reality.

Sweet Dreams Are Made of These

There’s no doubt that Walt was a dreamer. He brought his dreams to life. He was constantly creating. His dreams formed in his head but they came to life through perseverance. (See How Children Succeed for more on grit and perseverance.)

When setting goals, it’s easy to become fixated on incremental improvements. We’ll increase our revenue by 10%. We’ll reduce waste by 6%. It’s dreams, however, that provide the destination for a goal which isn’t incremental. Dreams serve as a malleable end point where people want to go. Dreams by their nature are ephemeral and therefore subject to revision as they are cast out into the light of day.

The power of dreams is less that they’re a fixed anchor with perfect vision, but instead that they have the ability to be a distant signpost that’s almost unrecognizable amidst the fires of daily life.

Passion and Persistence

If dreams are the endpoint goals – the place of our desires – then it’s passion that’s the fuel to get us there. There are plenty of improvements that we could seek in our life from the proverbial “make a better mouse trap” to more complex endeavors like reducing our energy costs. These potential goals are – for most people – just minor annoyances. We suffer with existing mousetraps and we sign the checks for our energy bills and move on. However, there are some desires that arouse in us a deep and burning desire to conquer.

When we find an annoyance, a vision, or a dream that captures our attention we’ve found a passion. Passions are the things that we’re interested in just because we are interested in them. Our elephants are intrigued. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more on the Rider-Elephant-Path model of our psyche.)

If you’ve ever seen a movie explosion you’ve seen what happens when a fuel (typically gasoline) isn’t put to use in an engine. Passion though filled with energy doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll accomplish our goals. The truly impressive goals are a long way away. Whether they are perceived to be right next door or very distant – they are typically within reach but further away than you expect. While mirrors may be printed with “Images are closer than they appear” goals should be printed with “Further away than they appear, but reachable.”

So while it’s passion that’s the fuel for meeting our goals, it’s persistence that is the engine that the passion goes into. If you look at any book on success you’ll find a component of persistence. In The Success Principles it’s “Practice Persistence.” In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, it’s The Law of the Big Mo (Momentum).

The problem with persistence is that you never know when it’s the right thing to do and when it isn’t. No matter how much persistence you have working to develop a system of canals to transport goods it isn’t likely to be successful. Since the railroads, it’s not been the most efficient way to transport goods. So despite all the hype just being persistent isn’t enough. You have to be persistent at the right things.

For me, the thing that I shouldn’t be persistent with is the development of DVD based video content. I started this idea on the tail end of DVDs being popular and while we still sell them, we don’t market them because these days everyone expects that video will be available via the Internet. The idea that you would ship a DVD seems as foreign as having to be home at a specific time to see a network television program. The time for this has past.

However, at the same time, I have a passion for delivering compelling video education. I want people to be able to learn at any time without having to travel to training. That has meant constant work on my video studio. (See My Video Studio 2.1 for more on the studio.) I’ve been persistent in my desire to improve the quality of the video content that I’m creating on both the technical production front as well as the content delivery front. This includes learning new techniques. (See I am a Comedian for how I took comedy classes to improve my speaking.) It also includes research on how adults learn. (See The Adult LearnerEfficiency in LearningJob Aids and Performance SupportThe Art of Learning, and The Art of Explanation for a few of the resources I’ve used to learn more.)

The results of all of this work are still forthcoming. While I’m seeing some value from the investments I’ve been making they’re still not returning the value that I’m putting into them but I’m not giving up. I’m continuing to make investments on every front to be able to deliver the best experiences technically, with the best content, and with the best delivery. I won’t get the chance to bring joy to people’s lives like Walt did, I do hope that I can help them learn quicker. For that I’ll be persistent at perfecting my craft.

Things are Not as They Appear

When we’re talking about authenticity, trust, vulnerability, and being real (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy) the creation of an image that isn’t real is a bad thing. On the other hand, when discussing marketing topics and the desire to create a brand that people want you absolutely must create an image. (See Guerrilla Marketing and Duct Tape Marketing) In Walt’s world where story is king, there is a need to ensure that everything is consistent with the story. He even had berms built around Disneyland to prevent the outside images from entering the park. He wanted to control the experience and that meant controlling the appearances.

Whether it’s main street’s narrowing as it gets closer to the castle, the castle and the stores on main street’s progressively smaller floors, Walt was creating a perspective – a forced perspective – of his world.

Small Cathedrals

I don’t believe that Walt would have envisioned Mythbusters. Somehow a man who built a world of story and imagination doesn’t seem like a fit with a show designed to bring forth the truth about the world in which we live and debunk the myths that people have about their daily life. However, despite this there’s a similarity in the approach between what Walt did and what Mythbusters did. Most compelling similarity is the path of testing in small scale before testing in large scale.

Walt did this with short movies before feature length. He did this by creating and testing technologies before he needed to rely on them. He was always tinkering with things until he had them good enough to move them into a larger scale. Mythbusters did this through small scale experiments which became the genesis for the larger and much more spectacular tests.

One of the discussions I remember from Mythbusters is an on-camera discussion about how big to make the small scale model. It’s an interesting conversation because it’s the kind of question that leaders struggle with. How big a bet do you put down on the table to test a belief? How “all in” do you go? The best wisdom about serial entrepreneurs is that you shouldn’t “bet the farm” on your first try but the unanswered question is when do you bet the farm? There were things like Disneyland and Snow White where Walt “bet the farm” but many, many other things where he simply made investments and tested things. Like Thomas Edison he was seeking to learn more so that he could take those bold steps forward.


It was all built on the back of a mouse. That – or some variant there of – is something Walt is frequently quoted as saying. He was grand in his visions and dreams but yet rooted, grounded, and humble to remember that the entire organization was built on the back of the mouse he drew coming back from New York. Despite his great reach and his ability to entertain people everywhere, he never lost sight of the fact that he came from humble beginnings. That he had his share both of bad luck and good.

My favorite definition of humility is the one from Humilitas – “Power held in service to others.” Walt used his power of storytelling to create for us a better world and to teach us how to grow our own leadership. Perhaps that is the true Wisdom of Walt.