“One of the most beautiful qualities of true leaders is giving you courage and, if necessary, holding that courage (for you) until you find it. They see what is possible and are moving you there and strengthening you as you go; giving you the ability to do hard things and giving you the unequalled delight of achieving something. Someone once said that companies are molded by the enthusiasm of the person at the top. Bob Iger’s enthusiasms are vast and deep, and always seeking to ennoble the world.”
~Diane Sawyer, longtime ABC News journalist and anchor, in “Hangin’ with Winners”
Robert Allen “Bob” Iger is the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Walt Disney Company. During his tenure as leader of the world’s largest media company, Bob was the steward of an unrivaled collection of intellectual properties and guardian of some of the most respected and beloved brands around the globe. For five consecutive years, The Hollywood Reporter placed Bob at the top of their annual ranking of “The Most Powerful People in Entertainment.” He published The Ride of A Lifetime in September 2019 wherein he shared the lessons learned while running Disney and explored the principles necessary for effective leadership. It was both surprising and gratifying when a copy of the best-selling book was delivered to my home along with a personal note on the inside title page: “Ray, The two of us shared much of this ‘ride’ and it was an honor for me! Best always, Bob Iger.”
We first met in the mid-1980’s when Bob was a young executive at ABC Sports working for the legendary sports producer and executive, Roone Arledge. Bob would later serve as President of ABC Entertainment from 1989-92, and it was during this time that we worked together on a made-for-television movie based on the crash landing of United Flight #232 in Sioux City, Iowa on July 19, 1989. The production had a talented cast headed by Oscar-winner Charlton Heston, Richard Thomas, James Coburn, Philip Baker Hall, and Tom Everett. With Bob’s support, we hosted a world-premiere screening in Sioux City for the real-life flight crew led by United Capt. Al Haynes, the first responders (which included reps from the 185th Air National Guard and local fire/police/rescue crews), the two local hospitals and dignitaries such as then-Governor Terry Branstad (see his WINNER profile for more) and then-Congressman Fred Grandy. The movie was presented on ABC during a sweeps month on February 24, 1992 and viewed by a large wide audience. The screenplay was originally titled A Thousand Heroes but was changed prior to its network showing — over my strong objections – to Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232. Bob would acknowledge to me many years later that the original title “was a lot better!”
Bob’s rise through the ranks at ABC and Disney in the years to follow was nothing less than meteoric. Following his term overseeing the Entertainment division, he was promoted to President of the entire ABC Television Network. Bob was later named to Disney’s senior management team in 1996 as Chairman of the Disney-owned ABC Television Group, and in 1999 added the additional role of President of Walt Disney International having just overseen the merger between Cap Cities/ABC and The Walt Disney Company. Disney appointed Bob to the position of President and COO in January, 2000 and on March 13, 2005 it was announced that he would succeed Michael Eisner as CEO.
As CEO, Bob’s strategic vision for The Walt Disney Company was focused on three fundamental pillars: 1) generating the best creative content possible, 2) fostering innovation and utilizing the latest technology, and 3) expanding into new markets around the world. I can personally attest to how he has always held a forward-looking view of the future. On April 6, 1998, Bob gave the opening keynote address at the annual National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas. I stumbled across a copy of that old NAB speech in 2012, and sent it to Bob. It was fun to point out how prescient and genuinely “futuristic” his remarks had been, and remind him how many of his predictions involving program platforms, the computer and internet, and other technological changes had actually come true! One key passage vividly demonstrated the forward-looking vision shared with the NAB audience more than a decade earlier: “The multitude of decisions we face today creates quite a challenge to any long-term planning process. None of us knows exactly where we’re going, but we can’t afford to stand still. The changes affecting our business over the past decade have been much more sweeping and consequential than most of us appreciate. Today’s viewer bears no resemblance to the viewer of yesterday, and the changes over the next ten years will be so vast that no one can predict with any assurance where the business is headed. If we continue to ignore the change, or attempt to conduct business as usual, we won’t be conducting much business at all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still an optimist about the television business. I’m just not a cheerleader for the status quo.”
A few years later in an April 2018 interview for Vogue magazine, Bob said: “Disney is an interesting place because we’ll be 95 years old this October, and we’re striving to maintain relevance in a world that doesn’t look anything like the world that the brand was created in. It doesn’t even look like the world the brand existed in five years ago.” Looking back to 2005 when he was named CEO, it is now clear to me that Bob was the perfect choice to lead Disney through the concomitant changes at the center of the digital world that lied ahead. His predecessor, Michael Eisner, put it this way in a March 2019 interview: “The thing that Bob has done, which is so impressive, is to continue the company’s legacy of pairing great creativity with technology. He has strengthened the company and kept Disney in a leadership role.”
After succeeding Eisner, Bob immediately set out to build upon Disney’s copious history of compelling and memorable storytelling through a series of tactical moves intended to renew key partnerships and identify strategic acquisitions. His first priority involved the rekindling of what had become a strained relationship between Disney and Pixar Animation Studios that stemmed from a falling out between Eisner and Apple CEO Steve Jobs. In fact, things had gotten so bad that the distribution of Pixar films by Disney was set to end. Bob described the impending dissolution of the partnership as a “huge blow, from both a financial and a public-relations standpoint.” But he was able to forge a new business partnership and strong personal friendship with Jobs around a deal announced in October 2005 which allowed consumers to download ABC programs on the new Video iPods. The day after the deal was announced, Mark Cuban wrote the following on his blog: “It is a business marvel. Bob Iger has gone contrary to what every current and previous TV network has and would have done had Bob not turned the industry on its head with his announcement with Apple yesterday. Bob Iger has saved network TV. How? By completely changing the economic model.”
The Disney-iPod deal led to what Bob referred to as his “radical idea” to buy Pixar, a move that Jobs would later embrace. In January 2006, Disney bought Pixar in a $7.4 billion all-stock transaction which made Steve Jobs the largest Disney stockholder and earned him a seat on the board. Among those especially pleased with the announcement was Roy E. Disney, the nephew of founder Walt Disney, who had been an outspoken critic in the past while Bob was working under Eisner. Roy issued this statement after the Pixar deal was announced: “Animation has always been the heart and soul of The Walt Disney Company and it is wonderful to see Bob Iger and the company embrace that heritage by bringing the outstanding animation talent of the Pixar team back into the fold. This clearly solidifies The Walt Disney Company’s position as the dominant leader in motion picture animation and we applaud and support Bob Iger’s vision.”
In a 2015 interview, Bob said that buying Pixar “was the single most important thing that has happened to me in the 10 years I’ve been in this job.” It was clear from the outset of Bob’s fence-mending with Pixar that his relationship with Steve Jobs was special, and one that would serve both companies well. In August 2011 it was announced that Steve would be stepping down as CEO of Apple due to health problems related to a pancreas neuroendocrine tumor. I dropped Bob a note a short time later which, in part, read, “I don’t know Steve. But I do know you well enough to know that the two of you would ‘mesh’ and otherwise work extremely well together. … I hope that his health allows him to, indeed, lead Apple as chairman and also stay on your board for many years to come.” Bob, who is renowned for his extraordinarily prompt replies, wrote me back the very same day to say, “(Steve) is truly unique, which I realize is not saying anything new, (and) it has been an incredible privilege to work with him and to get to know him these past 5 years. He’s going through hell right now, but I’ve never seen anyone fight as hard as he does.” Sadly, Steve Jobs would lose that fight just a few months later when he passed away on October 5, 2011.
The respect that Steve and his successor, Tim Cook, had for Bob became clear the very next month when Bob was appointed to serve on the board of Apple. In fact, Bob wrote in The Ride of A Lifetime that “if Steve were still alive, we would have combined our companies, or at least discussed the possibility very seriously.” Ironically, Bob would resign from the Apple board in September 2019 due to a conflict involving the approaching launch of new and competing streaming services that both companies were about to roll out.
The bold Pixar move was followed by others with Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012. But the one that topped them all was the legacy-defining deal announced in December 2017 to acquire most of the assets of 21st Century Fox in a bid originally valued at $52.4 billion in stock. Comcast, whose NBCUniversal division includes Universal Pictures and DreamWorks, counter-offered in June 2018 with a $65 billion all-cash proposal which led to a bidding war between the two companies. In the end, Disney prevailed with a $71.3 billion combined cash and stock offer, and was able to formally seal the deal in March 2019. Bob said at the time, “This is an extraordinary and historic moment for us — one that will create significant long-term value for our company and our shareholders. Combining Disney’s and 21st Century Fox’s wealth of creative content and proven talent creates the preeminent global entertainment company, well positioned to lead in an incredibly dynamic and transformative era.”
Many of Hollywood’s most valuable companies and intellectual properties — Disney, ESPN, ABC, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox film and TV studios, Hulu — were now together under the Disney banner and control.
Without question, my most meaningful and memorable experience with Bob involved Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines and its special connection to The Walt Disney Company dating back more than 75 years. The founders of the hospital, A.H. and Anna Blank, asked their close friend, Walt Disney, to send artists to help make the hospital walls more fun for the children. “We shall be very happy to do all we can to make the murals in the hospital something of which we can all be proud,” Disney wrote in a letter to the Blanks, who founded the hospital as a way to honor their late son Raymond. So when the hospital opened in 1944, artwork designed by Walt Disney and painted by some of his top artists at the time was installed. In a note to Bob in January 2017, I wrote, “You may recall me mentioning to you over the years the unique connection that Walt Disney himself had to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines. It would be a timely and wonderful gesture to update the late, great Walt Disney’s gift! Blank has a new pediatric emergency department with a wall or two that would be the ideal place for new watercolor murals featuring more contemporary Disney and Pixar films/characters. Is that even a possibility?” Bob responded a short time later with his positive answer: “We support numerous hospitals for children and I am certain we can fulfill this request. I will have our philanthropy people follow through with you on it.” And so they did.
Over the next year, the Disney Corporate Citizenship and Blank Children’s Foundation teams worked diligently to come up with a lay-out and location for new, original artwork. After considering more than a half-dozen design possibilities, they settled on a silhouette version consisting of 110 characters and objects from the extensive Disney and Pixar catalog: Dumbo, Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Lady and the Tramp, Bambi, Mulan, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Cars, A Bug’s Life, Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, Ratatouille, Monsters Inc, Pocahontas, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Lilo & Stitch, Big Hero 6, Cinderella, Brave, Hercules, The Aristocats, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Pinocchio, Aladdin, Up, Wall-E, Moana, Beauty and the Beast, and Bolt. And, of course, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Chip and Dale, Goofy, and Pluto were also prominently featured. Made of adhesive vinyl, they would measure 46 feet wide and 8 feet tall. A second, similarly sized mural on the opposite hallway wall features characters from the Disney classic, Peter Pan. The final product far exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Bob Iger came to Des Moines in April 2018 to tour the hospital, see the original artwork, and personally help unveil and dedicate the new artwork. He was thrilled to see Walt’s original murals for the first time, saying, “There’s something very vivid about them. The characters pop off the walls.” It was an honor for me to later introduce Bob at the dedication ceremony, and talk about the initiative he had announced one month earlier involving The Walt Disney Company’s commitment to dedicate more $100 million in company resources to children’s hospitals around the world over the next five years. My introduction also provided me the opportunity to discuss our long association and friendship, and point to his many accomplishments as the leader of one of the world’s most well-known and admired companies. In his dedication remarks, Bob said, “We really have a chance to actually follow in Walt’s actual footsteps to build on something that he himself had a hand in creating, and that makes this hospital, this visit and this day very special.” He later added, “Being able to bring a little of Disney’s values into a hospital where children and families are experiencing times of incredible stress and anxiety is a great thing.” At the conclusion of his remarks, Bob surprised hospital executives, doctors, nurses and other invited guests with the announcement that The Walt Disney Company, in addition to the new artwork and other donated products and services, would be making a cash donation of $100,000 to Blank Children’s Hospital. It was a very special day.
George Stephanopoulos (see his WINNER profile for more) made reference to Bob’s “affable rigor” in his answer to a question about the business leader he most admired. That’s a good description of one of Bob’s many fine attributes, but he also possesses an unrelenting determination to control events rather than react to them. To be “fearless” as he put it in a June 2015 interview in which he told Daniel Miller of the Los Angeles Times, “I just was built with an innate ability to not let fear guide me in how I run my life. You can look at all the numbers in the world, but at some point somebody … needs to dig down deep, search his soul, analyze or get in touch with his own or her own instinct, and decide.” This insight and winning advice should resonate with aspiring leaders of any organization.
During a private meeting in Bob’s office in July 2017 we broadly discussed the possibility of his making a presidential bid in 2020. He had just returned from a vacation with President Barack and Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other close friends, and it was obvious that such a run had been the subject of some recent discussions. We talked about the unique nature of the Iowa Caucuses, and the timing of a prospective campaign relative to his previously announced plans to depart Disney in July 2019. I left his office that day convinced that Bob’s political ambitions were genuine but still very much a work in progress. Any and all such plans came to a halt when, in a move tied to the 21st Century Fox announcement, Bob agreed to further extend his contract with Disney. He said, “I am going to stay until the end of 2021. You know, I’ve got one of the greatest jobs in the world … (and the proposed Fox deal) makes it even more exciting and I’m looking forward to the future at Disney.”
A profile in the May 2018 issue of Vogue magazine offered some further insight into Bob’s political aspirations: “The thought I had was coming from the patriot in me, growing up at a time when we respected our politicians not only for what they stood for but because of what they accomplished. I am horrified by the state of politics in America today, and I will throw stones in multiple directions. Dialogue has given way to disdain. I, maybe a bit naively, believed that there was a need for someone in high elected office to be more open-minded and willing to not only govern from the middle but to try to shame everyone else into going to the middle.” Oprah Winfrey, often rumored to have presidential ambitions of her own, said she would have gone door to door to campaign for Bob. “I really, really pushed him to run,” Oprah told Vogue in that same article. To this day, Bob and I occasionally exchange thoughts dealing with politics, and I vividly recall one such note in which he said, “The goings on in DC are enough to make me wince about our country.” Like Oprah, I can only wonder about what might have been.
Bob was named “Businessperson of the Year” by TIME magazine in December 2019. In the accompanying profile story, Belinda Luscombe wrote the following: “Iger’s tenure and the leader of the world’s most lucrative dream factory has been one long CEO highlight reel. But 2019 was an apex year, when many of his carefully incubated eggs hatched. Creativity is a messy affair, technology is an expensive, glitchy one, and business plans, like military campaigns, rarely survive the first battle. Yet in 2019, Iger managed to blend all three into one epic, deal-packed 12 months.” Bob acknowledged that it was one of the most productive years for the company in the 15 years he had served as CEO.
Bob’s office was appropriately located at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, a location made possible by revenues from the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt Disney once said, “Most of my life I have done what I wanted to do. I have had fun on the job.” Bob always maintained a similar philosophy as evidenced by the joy and optimism he showed while running the largest media company in the world. He put it this way in a March 2019 email to me: “Being CEO of Disney never gets old!”
Bob Iger’s managerial focus and leadership style built upon the history and heritage of the “wonderful” in the Wonderful World of Disney, and inspired the continuing sense of “magic” in the Magic Kingdom. The challenge of maintaining the creative spirit and legacy of the iconic Walt Disney could not have been placed in the hands of a better or more capable WINNER.
The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger (Random House, 2019)
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Lawhon, Danny (April 12, 2018) “110-character Disney mural unveiled by CEO Iger at Blank” The Des Moines Register
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Last Updated: October 30, 2022