The Ride of a Lifetime


Author: Robert Iger

Recommended by: Bill Gates

Date read: 16-02-2021

Tags: #business #disney #strategy

My score: 4 out of 5


Bob Iger tells the story of his ascent to the position of Disney CEO, including the acquisition of Pixar, Star Wars and 21st Century Fox

Highlights and notes


My experiences from day one have all been in the media and entertainment world, but these strike me as universal ideas: about fostering risk taking and creativity; about building a culture of trust; about fueling a deep and abiding curiosity in oneself and inspiring that in the people around you; about embracing change rather than living in denial of it; and about operating, always, with integrity and honesty in the world, even when that means facing things that are difficult to face

As I near the end of all of that and think back on what I’ve learned, these are the ten principles that strike me as necessary to true leadership. I hope they’ll serve you as well as they’ve served me.

  • Courage. The foundation of risk-taking is courage, and in ever-changing, disrupted businesses, risk-taking is essential, innovation is vital, and true innovation occurs only when people have courage. This is true of acquisitions, investments, and capital allocations, and it particularly applies to creative decisions. Fear of failure destroys creativity. Focus. Allocating time, energy, and resources to the strategies, problems, and projects that are of highest importance and value is extremely important, and it’s imperative to communicate your priorities clearly and often.
  • Optimism. One of the most important qualities of a good leader is optimism, a pragmatic enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Even in the face of difficult choices and less than ideal outcomes, an optimistic leader does not yield to pessimism. Simply put, people are not motivated or energized by pessimists.
  • Decisiveness. All decisions, no matter how difficult, can and should be made in a timely way. Leaders must encourage a diversity of opinion balanced with the need to make and implement decisions. Chronic indecision is not only inefficient and counterproductive, but it is deeply corrosive to morale.
  • Curiosity. A deep and abiding curiosity enables the discovery of new people, places, and ideas, as well as an awareness and an understanding of the marketplace and its changing dynamics. The path to innovation begins with curiosity.
  • Fairness. Strong leadership embodies the fair and decent treatment of people. Empathy is essential, as is accessibility. People committing honest mistakes deserve second chances, and judging people too harshly generates fear and anxiety, which discourage communication and innovation. Nothing is worse to an organization than a culture of fear.
  • Thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness is one of the most underrated elements of good leadership. It is the process of gaining knowledge, so an opinion rendered or decision made is more credible and more likely to be correct. It’s simply about taking the time to develop informed opinions.
  • Authenticity. Be genuine. Be honest. Don’t fake anything. Truth and authenticity breed respect and trust.
  • The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection. This doesn’t mean perfectionism at all costs, but it does mean a refusal to accept mediocrity or make excuses for something being “good enough.” If you believe that something can be made better, put in the effort to do it. If you’re in the business of making things, be in the business of making things great.
  • Integrity. Nothing is more important than the quality and integrity of an organization’s people and its product. A company’s success depends on setting high ethical standards for all things, big and small. Another way of saying this is: The way you do anything is the way you do everything.



With few exceptions in my life, I’ve never worried too much about the future, and I’ve never had too much fear about trying something and failing.

To this day, I wake nearly every morning at four-fifteen, though now I do it for selfish reasons: to have time to think and read and exercise before the demands of the day take over. Those hours aren’t for everyone, but however you find the time, it’s vital to create space in each day to let your thoughts wander beyond your immediate job responsibilities, to turn things over in your mind in a less pressured, more creative way than is possible once the daily triage kicks in. I’ve come to cherish that time alone each morning, and am certain I’d be less productive and less creative in my work if I didn’t also spend those first hours away from the emails and text messages and phone calls that require so much attention as the day goes on.

Roone taught me the dictum that has guided me in every job I’ve held since: Innovate or die, and there’s no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new or untested.

I loved [Jiro Dreams of Sushi] so much that I showed excerpts of it to 250 executives at a Disney retreat. I wanted them to understand better, through the example of Jiro, what I meant when I talked about “the relentless pursuit of perfection.” This is what it looks like to take immense personal pride in the work you create, and to have both the instinct toward perfection and the work ethic to follow through on that instinct.

It’s a delicate thing, finding the balance between demanding that your people perform and not instilling a fear of failure in them.

In my early days, I thought there was only one lesson in this story, the obvious one about the importance of taking responsibility when you screw up.

There’s a related lesson, though, that I only came to fully appreciate years later, when I was in a position of real leadership. It’s so simple that you might think it doesn’t warrant mentioning, but it’s surprisingly rare: Be decent to people. Treat everyone with fairness and empathy. This doesn’t mean that you lower your expectations or convey the message that mistakes don’t matter. It means that you create an environment where people know you’ll hear them out, that you’re emotionally consistent and fair-minded, and that they’ll be given second chances for honest mistakes.

Excellence and fairness don’t have to be mutually exclusive.


Managing creative processes starts with the understanding that it’s not a science—everything is subjective; there is often no right or wrong.

I never start out negatively, and unless we’re in the late stages of a production, I never start small. I’ve found that often people will focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty. And if the big picture is a mess, then the small things don’t matter anyway, and you shouldn’t spend time focusing on them.

This is all a way of stating what might seem obvious but is often ignored: that a delicate balance is required between management being responsible for the financial performance of any creative work and, in exercising that responsibility, being careful not to encroach on the creative processes in harmful and counterproductive ways. Empathy is a prerequisite to the sound management of creativity, and respect is critical.

I didn’t want to be in the business of playing it safe. I wanted to be in the business of creating possibilities for greatness.


“Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year!”

He was telling me not to invest in projects that would sap the resources of my company and me and not give much back.

Managing your own time and respecting others’ time is one of the most vital things to do as a manager

It’s a hard thing to do, especially in the moment, but those instances in which you find yourself hoping that something will work without being able to convincingly explain to yourself how it will work—that’s when a little bell should go off, and you should walk yourself through some clarifying questions. What’s the problem I need to solve? Does this solution make sense? If I’m feeling some doubt, why? Am I doing this for sound reasons or am I motivated by something personal?


It’s important to know how to find the balance—do the job you have well; be patient; look for opportunities to pitch in and expand and grow; and make yourself one of the people, through attitude and energy and focus, that your bosses feel they have to turn to when an opportunity arises.

Conversely, if you’re a boss, these are the people to nurture—not the ones who are clamoring for promotions and complaining about not being utilized enough but the ones who are proving themselves to be indispensable day in and day out.

At its essence, good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to possibly step into your shoes—giving them access to your own decision making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve, and, as I’ve had to do, sometimes being honest with them about why they’re not ready for the next step up

Disney was surprisingly parochial back then. We had offices all over the world, from Latin America to India to Japan, but we didn’t have a coherent global strategy or even structures in place that made sense. In Japan, for instance, we had a studio office in one part of Tokyo, a consumer-products business in another, a TV business somewhere else. None of them spoke with another. There was no coordination around back-office functions like accounting, say, or IT. That kind of redundancy existed everywhere.

It’s a tricky thing, moving people over to your side and enlisting their enthusiastic engagement. Sometimes it’s worth talking through their reservations and patiently responding to their concerns. Other times you simply need to communicate that you’re the boss and you want this done. It’s not that one approach is “nice” and the other isn’t. It’s just that one is more direct and nonnegotiable. It really comes down to what you believe is right for the moment—when a more democratic approach is useful both in getting to the best outcome and in building morale, and when you have enough certainty in your opinion that you’re willing to be an autocrat even in the face of disagreement.


Once they found someone, George told me, they would hasten the transition—in other words, they intended to replace Michael in the fall of 2005, a year before his contract expired. I asked him what they were planning to say about the search. “That we’re going to look for outside candidates and inside candidates,” George said. “What inside candidates are there other than me?” “None,” he said. “You’re the only one.” “Then you need to write that,” I said. “I’m the COO, and as of today, you’re making Michael a lame duck. I’m going to have to step in and exert a lot more authority.” I understood there was no guarantee that I would be Michael’s successor, but people in the company needed to know it was at least a possibility.

Michael’s biggest stroke of genius, though, might have been his recognition that Disney was sitting on tremendously valuable assets that they hadn’t yet leveraged

One was the popularity of the parks. If they raised ticket prices even slightly, they would raise revenue significantly, without any noticeable impact on the number of visitors. Building new hotels at Walt Disney World was another untapped opportunity, and numerous hotels opened during Michael’s first decade as CEO. Then came the expansion of theme parks, with the opening of MGM-Hollywood Studios (now called Hollywood Studios) in Florida and Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris) outside of Paris.

Even more promising was the trove of intellectual property—all of those great classic Disney movies—just sitting there waiting to be monetized. They began selling videocassettes of the classic Disney library to parents who’d seen them in the theater when they were young and now could play them at home for their kids. It became a billion-dollar business.

“great” is often a collection of very small things

Michael’s natural pessimism often worked for him, up to a point. He was motivated in part out of a fear of calamity, and that often fueled his perfectionism and his success, although it’s not a very useful tool to motivate people.

Pessimism leads to paranoia, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to risk aversion.

Optimism sets a different machine in motion. Especially in difficult moments, the people you lead need to feel confident in your ability to focus on what matters, and not to operate from a place of defensiveness and self-preservation. This isn’t about saying things are good when they’re not, and it’s not about conveying some innate faith that “things will work out.” It’s about believing you and the people around you can steer toward the best outcome, and not communicating the feeling that all is lost if things don’t break your way. The tone you set as a leader has an enormous effect on the people around you. No one wants to follow a pessimist.


Priorities are the few things that you’re going to spend a lot of time and a lot of capital on. Not only do you undermine their significance by having too many, but nobody is going to remember them all.

A company’s culture is shaped by a lot of things, but this is one of the most important—you have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly.

When I look back on that time now, I think of it as a hard-earned lesson about the importance of tenacity and perseverance, but also about the need to steer clear of anger and anxiety over things you can’t control. I can’t overstate how important it is to keep blows to the ego, real as they often are, from occupying too big a place in your mind and sapping too much of your energy. It’s

I learned, through strong self-discipline and love from my family, that I had to recognize it for what it was—that it had no bearing on who I was—and put it in its proper place. I could control what I did and how I comported myself. Everything else was beyond my control. I didn’t maintain that perspective every moment, but to the extent that I was able to, it kept the anxiety from having too strong a hold.


The drama with Roy reinforced something that tends not to get enough attention when people talk about succeeding in business, which is: Don’t let your ego get in the way of making the best possible decision.

A little respect goes a long way, and the absence of it is often very costly. Over the next few years, as we made the major acquisitions that redefined and revitalized the company, this simple, seemingly trite idea was as important as all of the data-crunching in the world: If you approach and engage people with respect and empathy, the seemingly impossible can become real.


Another lesson: Steve was great at weighing all sides of an issue and not allowing negatives to drown out positives, particularly for things he wanted to accomplish. It was a powerful quality of his.

I got into my car in the Pixar parking lot at the end of the day and immediately began scribbling notes. Then I called Tom Staggs and said I had to come see him as soon as I landed in L.A. I had no idea if the board would go for it, and I knew that Steve could change his mind on a whim. But I felt breathless as I described to Tom the level of talent and creative ambition, the commitment to quality, the storytelling ingenuity, the technology, the leadership structure, and the air of enthusiastic collaboration—even the building, the architecture itself. It was a culture that anyone in a creative business, in any business, would aspire to. And it was so far beyond where we were and beyond anything we might be able to achieve on our own, that I felt we had to do all we could to make this happen.

It’s perhaps not the most responsible advice in a book like this to say that leaders should just go out there and trust their gut, because it might be interpreted as endorsing impulsivity over thoughtfulness, gambling rather than careful study. As with everything, the key is awareness, taking it all in and weighing every factor—your own motivations, what the people you trust are saying, what careful study and analysis tell you, and then what analysis can’t tell you. You carefully consider all of these factors, understanding that no two circumstances are alike, and then, if you’re in charge, it still ultimately comes down to instinct. Is this right or isn’t it? Nothing is a sure thing, but you need at the very least to be willing to take big risks. You can’t have big wins without them.

A lot of companies acquire others without much sensitivity regarding what they’re really buying. They think they’re getting physical assets or manufacturing assets or intellectual property (in some industries, that’s more true than in others). In most cases, what they’re really acquiring is people. In a creative business, that’s where the value truly lies

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.


Putting pressure on movie executives, particularly creative producers, to make better films for less money isn’t necessarily a terrible approach. Any studio has to be aware of the economic realities of the business: production costs do sometimes get out of hand; hard lines do sometimes have to be drawn when it comes to negotiating contracts; there’s an endless litany of financial decisions that have to be attended to in order to guard against losing money on a film. It’s a fine line, though, and I’ve often observed how the business side can sometimes put too many demands on the creative process, and be too indifferent to the pressures that the filmmakers are under, and that strain ends up doing more harm than good.

another lesson to be taken from his hiring: Surround yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do.

There may be no product we’ve created that I’m more proud of than Black Panther


The worst thing you can do when entering into a negotiation is to suggest or promise something because you know the other person wants to hear it, only to have to reverse course later. You have to be clear about where you stand from the beginning

in general, you have to try to recognize that when the stakes of a project are very high, there’s not much to be gained from putting additional pressure on the people working on it. Projecting your anxiety onto your team is counterproductive. It’s subtle, but there’s a difference between communicating that you share their stress—that you’re in it with them—and communicating that you need them to deliver in order to alleviate your stress.

Looking back on the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, the thread that runs through all of them (other than that, taken together, they transformed Disney) is that each deal depended on building trust with a single controlling entity. There were complicated issues to negotiate in all of the deals, and our respective teams spent long days and weeks reaching agreement on them. But the personal component of each of these deals was going to make or break them, and authenticity was crucial. Steve had to believe my promise that we would respect the essence of Pixar. Ike needed to know that the Marvel team would be valued and given the chance to thrive in their new company. And George had to trust that his legacy, his “baby,” would be in good hands at Disney.


In the summer of 2016, we expressed interest to Twitter. They were intrigued, but felt they had an obligation to test the market, and so we reluctantly entered into an auction to buy them. By early fall, we’d virtually closed a deal. Twitter’s board supported the sale, and on a Friday afternoon in October, our board gave their approval to finalize a deal. Then, that weekend, I decided not to go through with it. If earlier acquisitions, especially Pixar, were about trusting my instinct that it was the right thing for the company, the acquisition of Twitter was the opposite of that. Something inside me didn’t feel right. Echoing in my head was something Tom Murphy had said to me years earlier: “If something doesn’t feel right to you, then it’s probably not right for you.” I could see clearly how the platform could work to serve our new purposes, but there were brand-related issues that gnawed at me.

a general rule, I don’t like to lay out problems without offering a plan for addressing them. (This is something I exhort my team to do, too—it’s okay to come to me with problems, but also offer possible solutions.

This is also an endorsement for populating boards with people who are not only wise and confident in their opinions, but also have direct and relevant experience of current market dynamics. In our case, Mark Parker from Nike and Mary Barra from General Motors are two perfect examples. Both have witnessed profound disruption to their businesses, and both are keenly aware of the perils of not adapting quickly to change.


Shortly after we agreed to the deal with Rupert, I began focusing on the question of exactly how we would merge these two huge companies. We couldn’t just add them to what already existed; we had to integrate them carefully in order to preserve and create value. So I asked myself: What would, could, or should the new company look like? If I were to erase history and build something totally new today, with all of these assets, how would it be structured?

The first thing I did was separate “content” from “technology.” We would have three content groups: movies (Walt Disney Animation, Disney Studios, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Twentieth Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Searchlight), television (ABC, ABC News, our television stations, Disney channels, Freeform, FX, National Geographic), and sports (ESPN). All of that went on the left side of the whiteboard. On the other side went tech: apps, user interfaces, customer acquisition and retention, data management, sales, distribution, and so on. The idea was simply to let the content people focus on creativity and let the tech people focus on how to distribute things and, for the most part, generate revenue in the most successful ways. Then, in the middle of the board I wrote “physical entertainment and goods,” an umbrella for various large and sprawling businesses: consumer products, Disney stores, all of our global merchandise and licensing agreements, cruises, resorts, and our six theme-park businesses.

I never asked what the financial repercussions would be, and didn’t care. In moments like that, you have to look past whatever the commercial losses are and be guided, again, by the simple rule that there’s nothing more important than the quality and integrity of your people and your product. Everything depends on upholding that principle.


That may be the hardest but also the most necessary lesson to keep in mind, that wherever you are along the path, you’re the same person you’ve always been.


Don’t start negatively, and don’t start small. People will often focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty.

Optimism emerges from faith in yourself and in the people who work for you. It’s not about saying things are good when they’re not, and it’s not about conveying some blind faith that “things will work out.” It’s about believing in your and others’ abilities

You have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly. If you don’t articulate your priorities clearly, then the people around you don’t know what their own should be. Time and energy and capital get wasted.

If something doesn’t feel right to you, it won’t be right for you.