TENACITY SPOTLIGHT: Walter Elias Disney

Walter E. DisneyForeword:  One of the dominant behavioral traits of history’s most successful Entrepreneurial CEOs is: tenacity.

When you look it up in any dictionary you’ll soon discover that it’s typically defined with two-word combinations such as: persistent determination, stubborn perseverance and unrelenting doggedness.

Anytime a behavioral trait like that requires an adjective and a noun to be defined accurately, it’s something I enjoy looking into … and that’s why this month’s “Tenacity Spotlight” is on Walt Disney.

Biographer Dr. Gene Landrum reports, “Creative geniuses (like Walt Disney) never give up and therefore seldom succumb to the vagaries of change and innovation.”

Story:  When Disney drew the first Mortimer Mouse (later Mickey Mouse) many of his associates, including his brother, Roy, laughed at his creation.

His colleagues and critics did the same for The Three Little Pigs and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Both animated productions were labeled “Disney’s Folly.”

Walt’s Disneyland idea (now acknowledged as “The Happiest Place On Earth”) was ridiculed as a “carny” idea from a man with a “Barnum and Bailey” mentality.

But Disney never allowed expert opinion or adversity to halt him from creating what he recognized as unique and innovative children’s entertainment.

It was his tenacity as an Entrepreneurial CEO that enabled him to protect his ideas and confidence to consequently build the world’s most famous animation empire and amusement park!

Disney was extremely productive with approximately 700 films in fourteen languages to his credit.  By the beginning of the 21st century, over a billion people had paid admission to see his films.

In my view, it was his tenacity, not his creativity, that inaugurated the Golden Era of Disney (between 1936 and 1941) when he produced many of the greatest animated movies in history.

But it didn’t start out “golden” because in 1934 when Disney decided to produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the first full-length animated feature film), motion picture critics went into shock. “How could a fairy tale suspend the interest of a viewing audience through over a half-dozen reels of action?” they sneered.

Dr. Gene Landrum writes in Profiles of Power and Success, “Disney’s innovation was considered a brilliant stroke of genius by only a few, but the act of a raving mandman by most. Few had his vision including his brother Roy who told him, ‘You’re trying to ruin us.’ ”

Almost everyone in the motion picture world regarded the movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as “Disney’s Folly.”

But Disney didn’t give up on his dream. When the bankers refused to fund this story of a fantasy princess whose innocence wins out over the wicked witch, Disney was out of money half-way through filming.

The extreme pressure and anxiety caused Walt to suffer his third nervous breakdown in 1935.

Again, Disney’s tenacious resolve never gave in to those wanting him to stop the project.  Although the film almost destroyed his marriage (he often slept at the studio night-after-night), in mid-1935 he finally convinced Bank of America to loan him $5 million to complete the animated film.

The release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is Walt Disney’s crowning achievement and a great example of how a tenacious Entrepreneurial CEO can add massive value to the rest of the world.

Twenty million saw the movie during the first 18 months of its release. Time magazine hailed it as a masterpiece and Variety called it an “all-time box office champ.”

At a time when movie tickets sold for twenty-five cents each, it’s remarkable that Snow White could earn $8 million its first year out of the gate and an unprecedented $100 million by 1991!

The movie was shown in eight languages and enthralled audiences strolled out of the theatres humming, “Heigh ho, heigh ho … it’s off to work we go.”

Dr. Landrum insightfully makes the unarguable point that “Walt Disney succeeded in making Doepy, Grumpy, Doc, Sneezy, Bashful, Happy and Sleepy into stars.”

Epilogue:  I want you to remember Walt Disney’s tenacity the next time you see a Mickey Mouse T-shirt in an airport or theme store in any city in the world.  His theme parks in Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo and Paris attract over 65 million visitors annually.

By 1995, the company Walt Disney tenaciously built employed over 100,000 people and shocked the financial world when Michael Eisner announced on July 31st, 1995 (13 years ago today) the acquisition of ABC for $19 billion.

But the most astonishing fact of all is that of the dozens of animated movies that have since produced hundreds of millions in revenues worldwide, two-thirds of them were considered loser on Walt Disney’s first release!

With this post, I honor Disney’s tenacity.

This over-achieving high school dropout overcame the ridicule from his colleagues and critics, he sidestepped multiple flirtations with bankruptcy (including two bankruptcy filings in the early 1920s) and pushed through eight (yes, eight) nervous breakdowns!

His optimism can be summed-up in two sentences he was known to say often: “If management likes my projects, I seriously question proceeding. If they disdain them totally, I proceed immediately.”

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