Nice Guy Finishes First
The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company
by Robert Iger (Random House, 2019)
A Review by Pam Munter
You may not recognize the name, so why would you read a memoir about an unfamiliar business tycoon? We all know his employer. The Walt Disney Company is consistently rated by Forbes each year among the richest and most highly regarded companies. Entertainment industry insider Robert Iger has presided over its exponential growth and relatively scandal-free years, while shepherding its monumental acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilms. What does it take to direct a huge corporation? And what’s the impact on the person? Readers seeking an introspective tome will be disappointed. It’s difficult to find the man behind the scenes.
Iger’s tenure followed that of the much-feared Michael Eisner as CEO in 2005, presenting a contrast in both style and temperament. He has spent an incredible 45 years with Disney or Disney-acquired companies, with his retirement date now set for December 2021. His skills, his unflappable personality, and his social savvy were instrumental in his rise to the top. Those interested in the business of show and the strategy for success under pressure will find this a worthwhile book, even a primer.
One of his primary goals was to re-energize a Disney in decline, by focusing on its animation department, the core of founder Walt’s dream. It was inevitable that he would seek to acquire the hugely successful Pixar. Iger’s discussion of the ups and downs of his relationship with Pixar’s CEO, Steve Jobs, is perhaps the highlight of this busy chronology. His conversations with the often-reclusive Jobs and their unlikely bond help explain how such deals get done. It also sheds light on the nature of Iger’s relationships: it’s all about business.
Iger and Jobs hit it off from the start, a relationship that eased the purchase of Pixar, restoring Disney to its place in the pantheon of animation. “We enjoyed each other’s company immensely, and felt we could say anything to each other, that our friendship was strong enough that it was never threatened by candor.” The day the deal was to be signed and announced to the media, Jobs took Iger outside and revealed his terminal cancer diagnosis. He gave Iger the option to cancel, given that Jobs would not be around much longer, and would now become a major shareholder in Disney. Iger went ahead with the deal.
He is cautious in his discussion of Michael Eisner, his former boss and predecessor. The two were never close friends but Iger made sure they weren’t enemies, either. He fails to castigate Eisner for his duplicitous efforts to undercut the Pixar deal, long after Eisner was no longer affiliated with Disney, taking his concerns over Iger’s head directly to the board. He also tiptoes around his interactions with the cantankerous and alcoholic Roy Disney, the last of the family involved in the corporation. In fact, Iger avoids most unpleasantries. Though his retirement is looming, he has failed to name a successor, perhaps seeking to retain his image as one of the few “nice guys” in Hollywood.
So much is unexplored here, perhaps expecting that the reader will infer what’s omitted. He mentions, almost in passing, that his father (who remains oddly nameless) suffered from bipolar illness. What do we read about its cataclysmic impact on the family? “I don’t carry much pain…I never felt threatened by his moods, but I was acutely aware of his dark side and felt sad for him.” We read about what’s served at his years-later lunch with Rupert Murdock, but not much about important conversations with either parent. “My parents were worriers,” but says he is not. “I’m often asked what aspect of the job most keeps me up at night. The honest answer is that I don’t agonize over the work very much.” Really? He describes an anxiety attack serious enough to require a trip to the ER, just as the board was deliberating over his appointment as CEO. He acknowledges he has assumed former boss Roone Arledge’s perfectionism, a well-known recipe for chronic stress. This is a man who rises at 4:15 each morning and works out seven days a week. He spends more time recounting the time Sinatra tipped him $100 for delivering a bottle of Listerine than he does about the demise of his first marriage. In fact, we are introduced to her only incidentally, as he’s promoted within ABC and required to move from New York to Los Angeles. He “went home and had a conversation with my then-wife, Susan.” Later, he ascribes the end of the marriage to her preferring to live on the east coast. He has been married to Willow Bay, a former TV newscaster, for 24 years.
Perhaps the biggest bombshell appears toward the end. He speculates that a meeting with mogul Rupert Murdock was called so Murdock could inquire about Iger’s possible run for the Presidency. Say, what? This is our first clue of any political aspirations. He casually adds, “I have always been interested in politics and policy, and I often thought about serving the country after I left Disney.” Instead, however, Murdock floated the possibility of Disney acquiring most of the assets of Murdock’s company, Fox, an offer Iger pursued instead of running for political office.
In spite of the lack of disclosure and occasional abruptness, readers may be surprised to discover how many major business transactions are consummated due to the connections between the people at the top. “Looking back on the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, the thread that runs through all of them…is that each deal depended on building trust with a single controlling entity.” In their own way, each major acquisition transformed Disney’s culture.
He leaves us with a chapter entitled “Lessons to Lead By,” which reads a bit like a business Boy Scout manual, extolling honesty, integrity, optimism, risk-taking, hard work, and modesty. “My instinct throughout my career has always been to say yes to every opportunity.”
There have been other more inflammatory books about Disney and those at its helm (e.g., Eisner and Michael Ovitz have each written accounts of their time there) and, of course, many bios of Walt, himself. Given the power and allure of the Disney name, it’s likely that a more impartial writer will emerge to dissect the Iger years. But the inner Iger may remain a mystery. A memoir, it’s not.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram and Almost Famous. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Recently, her essays, book reviews and short stories have appeared in more than 130 publications. Her play, “Life Without” was nominated for Outstanding Original Writing by the Desert Theatre League and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Pam has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, her sixth college degree. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published in 2018 by Adelaide Books. Her work can be found at http://www.pammunter.com.