Book review: Bob Iger's Ride of a Lifetime

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 8, 2019, 8:22 PM | comments: 0

Last week I finished Bob Iger's book The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as the CEO of the Walt Disney Company. It might seem a little obvious that I would read his book given my general interest in theme parks, and by extension Disney, but I picked it up mostly because these executive memoirs mixed with business leadership advice are easy and interesting reading. It's probably not surprising that parts feel a lot like Ed Catmull's Creativity, Inc., because running Pixar ultimately translated to running part of Disney.

Iger's story is unusual, and there's a degree to which you have to take his advice with a grain of salt. Few people work their way up from the bottom in what is ultimately the same company by way of acquisition, and even fewer are equipped to run a company of that size with such a huge degree of success. What I'm getting at here is that he is in fact a unicorn with exceptional instincts. You and I, if we're being honest, don't have that. It's a great story though, if somewhat sanitized. He dances around the fact that his predecessor, Michael Eisner, lacked the humility to know when it was time to move on, and some of the bosses he worked with were somewhat toxic in their approach. He does acknowledge that Steve Jobs, someone he had great love and respect for, was not the easiest person to work with. He also seems honest about the painful decision to have to let go of John Lasseter after allegations of sexual misconduct.

A common thread with Catmull's book is the desire to see what isn't obvious. It's interesting that both talk about the importance of this, but the closest thing that both offer to advice is that you have to rely on other people to some extent to see it. Certainly, that's another argument for surrounding yourself with the best people who are better than you. This is, ultimately, what makes Iger so successful. Even as a network TV guy, he saw from the start that for this media empire, you have to be willing to disrupt your own business before someone else does, in this case by making a big bet on streaming, and as a content creator, you still have to give people room to make the best possible art. There are people who believe that a huge company can't make great art, but disagree entirely. If anything, having the streaming outlet will give them even more room to take risks and tell great stories.

At the end of the book, Iger gives a summary of advice, as it relates back to his experience. This is the usual fare you would expect, largely around mature and honest communication. What's interesting is that even when there are billions of dollars at stake, the fundamentals about decision making and relationship building aren't really that different. I think his position is that, if you can constantly be thoughtful about these aspects of leadership (something, again, I believe he's uniquely capable of), you can apply his advice at any scale.

Overall, it's an easy and quick read, and even if it can be a little touchy-feely, worth hearing about his story. Media consolidation isn't necessarily the best thing, I would generally say, but what's striking is that he seems intent on keeping the soul and creative culture of the company in tact. I think he's succeeding.


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