Brains, EQ and Guts
The Ride of a Lifetime

Brains, EQ and Guts

Disney CEO Robert Iger offers an enjoyable memoir including memorable lessons about ruthlessness, daring and self-belief.

First, take care not to confuse this with the other memoir entitled The Ride of a Lifetime by reality show Orange County Choppers star Paul Teutul. This ride belongs to Robert Iger, Disney Company CEO.

Iger writes like a happy corporate animal with no remaining scores to settle. His voice is basic and straightforward, easy to read and to remember. While he seldom reveals any deep or personal emotions, his book offers worthwhile business lessons. Reading audiences flocked to and enjoyed this memoir; it was a number one New York Times bestseller.

Iger first runs through his rather extraordinary corporate career. A dangerous corporate infighter and tactician, Iger will convince you when he says that he worked hard and earned everything he attained. 

In 1974, Iger joined ABC as a studio supervisor. He then moved to ABC Sports, under legendary producer Roone Arledge, who taught him to strive for perfection. By his own account, Iger is a leader who demands excellence while being fair and respectful. 

True integrity…knowing who you are and being guided by your own clear sense of right and wrong – is a kind of secret weapon. Roger Iger

Iger was vice president of ABC Sports in 1985 when Capital Cities Communications acquired the network. He found that its new owners, Tom Murphy and Dan Burke, were authentic, open and competitive without sacrificing decency. Iger cites them as mentors who helped him build his leadership values: integrity, trust in your instincts, clear priorities and respect.

Capital Cities/ABC

In 1992, Iger became president of the ABC network and, in 1994, he was named president and COO of Capital Cities/ABC, which Disney acquired under CEO Michael Eisner. Iger makes it clear that he found no shortage of Shakespearean conflict under Eisner. To Iger’s frustration, Eisner named Michael Ovitz, co-founder of the CAA talent agency, as second in command at Disney. But Ovitz proved a poor fit, and Eisner fired him 1996. Iger did not mind.

Iger also cites tension between Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who then ran Disney Studios. In 1994, Eisner forced Katzenberg out and secured a pipeline of hits in a deal with Steve Job’s Pixar animation studio.

Managing creativity is an art, not a science. Roger Iger

Iger reports that he had a warm but wary relationship with Eisner, possibly because Eisner felt Iger wanted his job. But Iger believes in doing the best he can, focused only on his own job. In 1999, Eisner named Iger president and COO and named him to a seat on the board.

Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew, brought Eisner in as CEO in 1984, but he came to demand Eisner’s removal. At Disney’s 2004 annual meeting, 43% of shareholders “withheld their support” from Eisner, who later stepped down. Iger notes that no one is immune from a palace coup.

Disney’s New CEO

Iger outlines the goals he aimed for as Disney’s CEO: creating the highest-quality content, embracing new technologies and taking the company international – all targets he achieved. He also mollified Roy Disney with what Iger regarded as insignificant perks: an emeritus board role, invitations to premieres and park openings, a small “consulting fee,” and an office on the Disney lot.

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

To improve relations with Jobs, Iger offered ABC television shows for viewing on Apple’s new video iPod through iTunes. He notes that this move also positioned Disney to thrive amid the shift to on-demand streaming.

The Best Solution

Iger broached a new Disney-Pixar deal, but he recounts that Jobs played hardball, offering to keep Disney on only as the distributor of Pixar products. Iger gives himself due credit for the suggestion that Disney should just buy Pixar. The Disney board showed greater concern about this idea than Jobs did, but Iger knew that Jobs liked audacious ideas. Iger underscores that this experience taught him to never shy away from daring schemes.

Iger discloses that Pixar saved Disney Animation while Disney’s purchase gave Pixar’s innovative creative leaders, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, expanded resources. Disney acquired Pixar in a $7.4 billion, all-stock deal. This ingrained Iger’s tendency to believe in his instincts.

Disney-Branded Content

Iger is justifiably proud that he also acquired Marvel Entertainment, the comic book publisher whose content has fueled 20 Disney films, plus theme-park attractions, television shows and consumer products.

Now more than ever: Innovate or die. There can be no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new.Roger Iger

Iger then acquired Lucasfilm, home of creator George Lucas’s Star Wars universe. Iger shows remarkable sensitivity – especially for a CEO – to the emotions of his partners. He understood that Star Wars was Lucas’s invention, even as Disney became the custodian of Lucas’s lifetime body of work and took creative control. Iger, ever candid, reveals that Lucas didn’t like Disney’s first Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. But, being bottom line-centric, Iger points out that it broke box office records.

Iger believes disruption upends established incentives. So, instead of focusing on profitability, he holds that division heads must commit to forward-looking ideas even if they won’t be profitable for a while. Iger came up with a compensation formula based not on earnings but on how Disney’s divisions worked together to further the corporation’s strategy. 

A Global Company

Iger rolls out his myriad accomplishments: He opened Hong Kong Disneyland and bought the assets of 21st Century Fox and Fox Searchlight Pictures. He acquired a stake in Hulu, and controlling interest in National Geographic and in Fox’s intellectual property, such as The Simpsons. Iger reveals his long-term cunning: He knew Fox had India’s largest streaming service. Thus, Iger announces, with that acquisition, Disney expanded its presence in Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, South Korea, Brazil and Mexico.

A Straightforward Saga

Iger is a contradiction; he doesn’t write like a deep thinker, but his strategic successes sprang from his intellect, his emotional intelligence and his daring. So, he has a sophisticated mind. He doesn’t shy away from owning that he was ruthless when he had to be, and he gives credit where it’s due. However, his personality and his book do not vest in sharing, making this an enjoyable but not deeply immersing read. Iger’s thoughts are perhaps most useful for those seeking tactical and strategic role modeling, which Iger supplies aplenty.

Share this Story
Show all Reviews