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Transformational Leadership: Walt Disney

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Born on December 5, 2901 in Illinois, Chicago, US and died on December 15, 1966, Los Angles, California, Walter Elias Disney is the famous American business leader who founded the most famous entertainment conglomerate company of the 20th century, Walt Disney (Gabler, 2008a). An American entrepreneur, cartoonist, voice actor and film producer, Walt was a passionate individual, a dreamer boasting highly inventive and creative traits, all of which helped him to keep focused on achieving his visions and becoming successful (ibid). According to Bob Thomas (1976a), a Hollywood reporter, school teachers complained about Disney’s ‘doodling and daydreaming’. Disney’s career commenced at the Chicago Institute of Art. At 19 he started his first business “Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists and in 1921 he went onto create an animation business. After a rough start at Iwerks and insufficient income from the cartoons venture, Disney failed to save his ventures from bankruptcy (Barrett & Green, 2001a).

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Unfazed, Walt moved to Hollywood. Disney was so certain he would popularize animation that he spent his last $40 in 1923 on a train ticket from Kansas City (Fox, 1998a); in the same year he co-founded the Disney Bros. Studio, along with his brother Roy (Langer, 2000). Disney was a perfectionist, he reinvested all of profits in order to improve his work. He quickly expanded his studio to include a training school whereby he gave a new generation of artists the opportunity to flourish. “At the end of the day, after all his animators had gone home, Walt Disney would sneak a peek at their drawings. Then he’d rifle through the trash to make sure they hadn’t thrown out their best work” (Green, 1999a). The new studio was also home to the production of Snow White in 1937, the first feature-length cartoon. Although some criticized his work, true believers vastly outnumber his critics and there is no denying his success. Disney received more academy awards and nominations than anyone else between 1932 and 1969, winning 22 of his 59 nominations (PBS, 2017a). He was awarded a congressional gold medal on may 24, 1968 and minor planet 4017 ‘Disneya’ is named after him. (Logue,1999a). His imagination and energy inspired him to develop well-loved amusements for “children of all ages” throughout the world (Crowther, 2018) In 1966, the year Walt Disney died, 240 million people saw a Disney movie, 100 million tuned in to a Disney television program and 80 million bought Disney merchandise. Few creative figures have held such a long-lasting place in American culture. (PBS, 2017b). Transformational LeadershipFor years’ academics have been asking the question ‘What makes a good leader”, delving deep into the study of leadership, examining leader’s habits and personality (Burns, 2003). Throughout recent years, the study of leadership has undergone a fundamental transformation. This transformed role requires certain skills because leadership is what you do with people, not to them. A transformational leader “serves to change the status quo by appealing to followers’ values” (Northouse, 2013) and “seeks to transform followers’ personal values and self- concepts, moving them to higher level of needs and aspirations” (Jung, 2003). Not only do they exploit the needs of followers, they look for motives in which to engage and consequently, help them to achieve their fullest potential.

Transformational leaders emphasize the group’s collective identity (Shamir et al., 1993). They attract followers who strive beyond their self-interests for a common good and are driven by a sense of moral sensitivity (Bass, 1995). Transformational leadership theory is widely accepted all over the world due to its success rate over other forms of leadership, for example, transactional and laissez-faire (Judge and Piccolo, 2004). According to James MacGregor Burns (1978) in “Leadership”, the theory of transformational leadership tries to understand how leaders influence followers to make self-sacrifices and put the needs of the mission or organization above their materialistic self-interests. The crucial task of transformational leaders is “to raise the awareness and consciousness of their followers to higher levels of conduct and morality” (ibid). Thus, the moral development of followers is a critical outcome in transformational leadership. “By giving meaning and purpose to the work they do, transformational leaders inspire and motivate followers to go beyond expectations” (Shamir, 1991). In “Transformational Leadership” Bernard Bass and Ronald Riggio (2008), claim that transformational leadership has three behavioural components; influencing processes, facilitating conditions and performance outcomes. Influencing processes refers to internalization, the leader’s responsibility to persuade followers that task objectives are consistent with their personal values and interests. Facilitating conditions are more important in unstable environments, but are effective in any situation and performance outcomes include but are not limited to, increased satisfaction, commitment and performance, and decreased turnover intention. The four main characteristics of transformational leadership ‘the 4 I’s’ as identified by previous researchers (Jaussi 2003; Bass and Avolio, 1995 and Chang, 2017) and developed by Bass and Riggio that are used to measure and define transformational leadership are:

  1. Idealized influence where the leader is seen as a role model,
  2. Inspiration motivation where the leader inspires motivation and team spirit,
  3. Intellectual stimulation where the leader stimulates creativity and innovation, and
  4. Individualized consideration where the leader mentors and supports each follower.

The purpose of this report is therefore, to study existing literature on transformational leadership, analyzing the style and role of leadership of Walt Disney to evaluate the overall effectiveness of transformational leadership theory. Walt Disney as a transformational leader Walt Disney exemplified many transformational leadership capabilities throughout his 43 year Hollywood career. Take firstly idealized influence. From the very beginning Disney used charisma to inspire respect and loyalty and to emphasize the importance of having a collective sense of mission. Disney believed in his mission and put people first, famously declaring “when you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable” (Watts, 1998a)”. This quotation illustrates his hard effort to triumph. Disney was a dreamer; even after he achieved success, he continued to innovate. He demonstrated a strong moral purpose and worked hard to make a difference in the lives of everyone who had interactions with Walt Disney Productions, consistently highlighting the shared interests of employees. His work became increasingly celebratory of the American way of life, making his unlikely success possible (Green, 1999b). Even after suffering numerous setbacks early on in his career, filing for bankruptcy in (ibid), Disney’s tenacity and persistence was how he created more opportunities for members to appreciate achievement and the contributions of others, building a collective identity (Searle and Hanrahan, 2011 cited in Bass, 1990), “I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.” (Gabler, 2008b).

Disney’s idealized influence also highlighted weaknesses of his leadership style. Despite his success, he was a relentless perfectionist and the strength of his passion to be taken seriously as an artist and businessman would take its toll and damage the example he set to his followers. His obsessive attention to detail frequently resulted in delays and cost overruns, he was stung by critics. Disney was also an inspirational motivator, he successfully articulated a compelling vision for the future stating that “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” (PBS). He embodied inspirational motivation through his openness to other opinions and ideas. An example being that of one of the most beloved cartoon characters in history ‘Mickey mouse’ was initially named ‘Mortimer’ before Disney’s wife voiced her opinion (Barrett & Green, 2001b). The intrinsic motivation perspective argues that people are most creative primarily via intrinsic motivation (Amabile, 1983, 1998, cited in Gumusluoglu, 2009), therefore Disney’s actions to “provide encouragement into the idea generation process” by creating and funding a new university, the California Institute of the Arts, known as Cal Arts, where people in could work together, dream and develop, and create art meant that given their emotional ties with their leader, employees were more likely to respond to his challenge for innovation by exhibiting creativity in their tasks (Bass and Avolio, 1989; Sosik et al.,1998). Disney showed his followers how to achieve their goals by expressing his belief that they can do it. Such open-mindedness gained the loyalty of his employees, he encouraged the sharing of ideas and created a work environment whereby he used storytelling in meetings to illustrate his company vision. He often reminded employees of the importance of telling a compelling story, claiming it would help others make better decisions and communicate the vision to their own team (Logue, 1999b). Disney’s inspirational motivation also emphasized a weakness of his, an initial inability to stray into new realms of the entertainment industry. He was also courageous yet took few risks; he never lost sight of his vision.

As a result of his work during WWII Disney considered investing in instructional films, he even secured deals with General Motors Corp, but after realizing the work would detract from his main focus, he decided against the venture (ibid), demonstrating a strong commitment to his goals, but also a lack of broad vision. Thirdly, intellectual stimulation. Empowering followers to innovate was a great strength of Disney’s; he elevated the interests of his employees and encouraged them to tacle problems in new ways (Bass, 1985). He set high expectations for his followers, an example being the rules he set for those playing theme park characters (Watts, 1998b). Disney understood that in the entertainment industry innovation through creativity is an important competitive advantage a firm can boast (Woodman et al., 1993). In intellectually stimulating his employees and advocating innovation throughout the firm, Disney ensured employees felt challenged and energized to seek innovative approaches in their roles (Howell and Higgins, 1990). Scott and Bruce (1994 cited in Gumusluoglu & Ilsev, 2009) support his actions, maintaining that organizational climate is an important factor for creativity. He never stopped creating new characters or trying new things and stated “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible” (Green, 1999c). He defied the norms and tackled his problems ingeniously. When critics slammed Snow White, Disney went ahead with production and succeeded, the show made more than $8 million during its first release, equal to $130 million US dollars today (Thomas, 1976b), Disney rarely dwelled on the negative. When Iwerks, his first business partner abandoned the animation venture prematurely, Disney wished him well.

He was an honest, reliable and loving individual, traits that Mulla & Krishnan (2011) found individuals rating high on transformational leadership gave high value to.Finally, individualized consideration. Disney developed relationships with many of his employees, he understands and considered their differing needs, skills, and aspirations when making decisions. He devoted himself to his followers, exerting a lot of effort in order to develop them. He went above and beyond for his employees, creating and funding a university, the California institute of Arts. According to Disney, “the peak of education for the arts” (Langer, 2000), an environment where people could work together, dream, develop and create arts needed for the future. He once said “If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something” (ibid). Bass (1990) argued that transformational leaders meet the emotional needs of each employee and establish trust, one way Disney did this was by adopting a relationship oriented approach to management, every employee refereed to him as ‘Walter’ and only employees first names appeared on their badges (Barrett & Green, 2001c), he used his charisma to influence others. His way of dealing with people created trust, commitment and loyalty of followers which helped in achieving organizational goals and making dreams come true. Developing potential and providing equal opportunities for all to succeed was a priority of Disney’s’, he pushed employees to attend art school at his expense, created programs to help children develop artistically and held evening training classes for employees (Watts, 1998c).

Building his empire on storytelling helped gain the loyalty of his employees and increase their enthusiasm. Individualized consideration does however “serve as a reward” for the followers by providing recognition and encouragement; an authorized biography of Disney “An American Original” (Thomas, 1976c) however, does comment on Disney’s struggle with communication skills. He never directly praised his employees, instead they learned to read his body language, for example they knew if they bored him, he’d drum his fingers loudly on the chair arm. This lack of basic interpersonal skills could damage Disney’s reputation as a famous transformational leader. Evaluating transformational leadership Throughout recent years, many theories of leadership have evolved, each aiming to provide guidance regarding effective management of individuals and organizations. One of these theories is transformational leadership. Transformational leadership refers to an innovative style of leadership in which leaders “promote individual attention, give empowerment to followers, have intellectual stimulation, exert idealized influence, stimulate growth and use inspirational motivation” (Yukl, 1999). Transformational leadership theory provides a solid framework which is useful in understanding effective leadership by using four key ideas to discuss how leaders influence, consider, motivate and stimulate their followers. The theory incorporates a range of variables: traits, behaviors, influencing processes, followers, performance outcomes etc. in order to view leadership situationally. Despite the fact they are both transformational leaders, Walt Disney did not lead in ways parallel to Martin Luther King.

Transformational leadership theory, unalike to many other leadership styles, understands this and was developed accordingly. Additionally, the theory recognises the importance of emotions. Ashforth and Humphrey (1995, cited in Matthew & Gupta, 2015) note that transformational leadership are better equipped to intervene in emotionally challenging situations through individualized consideration, offering support, empathy and role modelling. Transformational leadership also takes into account ethics as moral development is considered an essential characteristic of a transformational leaders (Dvir et al., 2002). Leaders should embody the three standards: virtue in their personal life, ethics in their transactional dealings and universal/ transforming terminal values (Burns, 2003). Walt Disney illustrates how important ethics is to transformational leader. After a strike by Disney animators in 1941 many top animators resigned, and it would be many years before the company produced animated features that lived up to the quality of its early 1940s classics such as Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942) (Gabler, 2008c). Disney refused to walk away, he worked hard to make his vision a reality and would not disappoint his growing audience. As soon as he mastered one project, he quickly moved on to the next. “The company must never be complacent” (Fox, 1998b).Transformational leadership may not however, always be useful in understanding effective leadership. Although transformational leaders encourage innovative ways of working and solving problems (Bass and Avolio, 1997), the theory reflects the implicit assumptions associated with the “heroic leadership” in that the results are consistently interpreted as showing that the leader influences rather than reciprocal influence processes or shared leadership. As a result, if in fact, the influence is shared, the effectiveness of the leader is very difficult to determine.

Another problem with transformational leadership arises from the naivety of the theory. Accepting that transformational leaders can “promote followers’ ability and motivation of their followers by fostering a collective identity and vision” (Schweitzer, 2014), the theory fails to identify negative effects of the theory. Harrison (1987) proposed that followers can be transformed to such a high degree of emotional involvement in the work that over time they become affected by the prolonged stress and Disney sits as a perfect example, his obsessive attention to detail frequently resulted in delays and cost overruns. The theory doesn’t identify any situation whereby the effects of transformational leadership may adversely affect an organization, yet Walt Disney is a real life example of the theory having an opposite effect than proposed. In conclusion, transformational leadership proved to be a useful leadership style in understanding the effectiveness of Walt Disney’s leadership and management capabilities. The theory is effective in motivating employees through setting an example and creating a collective sense of mission. The leader articulates of a vision of the future and works to empower individuals situationally. Critics may argue that this leadership style is too rigid and therefore prevents creativity. Walt Disney, as a case study proves that as the theory understands the influence of variables, including the situation and given the emotional ties followers develop with their leader through a collective vision, employees are more likely to respond to his challenge for innovation by exhibiting creativity in their tasks.

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