In 2018, I stepped down from a twenty-six-year career at the Walt Disney Company. During the nearly three decades I spent at Disney, I held nineteen different positions, from parking attendant at Epcot to vice president of the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, the largest theme park in the world. At the Magic Kingdom, I led a team of 12,000 cast members—the term Disney uses for employees, and a term that aptly reflects the collective commitment to creating a unique immersive show for all visitors.
Because I spent all of my professional life at Disney, the kingdom metaphor in the title of this book should come as no surprise. After all, we all operate in several “bubbles” or kingdoms of sorts: our personal life, our team, our organization. When I joined Disney in 1991, I knew very little about how to apply leadership in the real world or how to achieve success in a professional environment. Even with the best training in the industry, it took me a long time, many mistakes, and a lot of self-reflection to learn how to lead well and create the right culture. At first, I assumed leadership was all about what we did for our organizations. As the scope of my responsibilities grew, I realized that in order to have an effective and positive impact, I needed first to lead my direct reports well, hoping to steer them toward my goals for the organization.
Eventually, it became clear that none of this would happen if I, myself, wasn’t fit to lead. Only then could I have the strength and ability to lead my team and subsequently impact the organization as a whole.
That single realization—that self-leadership is paramount to team or organizational leadership—was the most valuable lesson I learned in almost three decades at Disney. I structured my leadership training around that very lesson, helping all cast members turn into leaders by first leading themselves well.
Since leaving Disney, I’ve made it my mission to help leaders in other organizations do the same—lead themselves, their teams, and their organizations effectively, in that order—because the reality is the moment you start leading yourself well, your team and organization will begin to improve, too. As the speed of change reaches new heights, it requires us to be more malleable, adaptable, and innovative; this is akin to operating in transformation mode and constantly assessing how we can adapt to a new reality, be it economically, environmentally, or technologically.
Just like the impeccable housekeeping that cast members perform at Disney to deliver excellent guest experiences, we all need to do personal, internal housekeeping on ourselves to become impactful leaders in our personal and professional lives. It begins through a process of ongoing self-reflection, personal growth, and a commitment to self-discipline. This is true no matter which kingdom you lead.
Let the Sun Shine on Your Organization’s Culture
With traditional management training, we measure productivity, revenue, cost, growth, and other key performance indicators, or KPIs. The truth is that these KPIs are simply results or lagging indicators of running a successful business. It is the people who deliver these results, and in order for them to perform at their best, they need to be in an environment where they feel supported and are encouraged along the way. This is where organizational culture comes in.
Culture is the all-encompassing environment within which we live, work, and play—it’s the factor with the most influence on our mood, attitude, and motivation. You will see your KPIs improve faster as your team members become more engaged in their jobs. I like to equate culture with the weather. When the sun is shining and the weather is warm, it’s easy to be positive, engaged, and committed. When it rains or snows, or when lightning strikes, everyone wants to run for cover. When we operate under auspicious skies in our organization, we are more motivated and energetic, more effective and fulfilled. The entire team can feel it—happy leader, happy team . . . and a happy team makes an organization more dynamic, efficient, and successful.
During my tenure as the vice president of the Magic Kingdom, my team and I had to cope with many weather-related issues ranging from extreme heat and humidity to torrential downpours and sometimes even hurricanes. Each change in the weather shifted everything about the Magic Kingdom, from cast member duties to our guests’ experience. There was no amount of pixie dust that could have influenced Mother Nature. On the other hand, I’ve learned that the weather in our personal and professional kingdoms is within our control. We can devise the ideal “weather” and the right environment for ourselves, our families, and our organizations. Not only do we have the ability to do something about it, but it is also our responsibility. In this book, I’m going to share with you exactly how I learned to influence culture in my kingdom.
What to Expect
I routinely coached and mentored leaders during my career at Disney, and I was coached and mentored myself. knew I had to keep going beyond the Magic Kingdom walls. I spent more than two decades improving as a leader and serving others. Since I left Disney, one of my most rewarding professional experiences has been helping leaders become better equipped to serve others, empower their teams to higher performance, and build their organizations to be more successful. As Alexander Hamilton so eloquently said, “A legacy is planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” If, with this book, I can help leaders influence the culture in their kingdoms, I will leave a legacy far beyond what I imagined back in 1991 when I started at Disney.
I read somewhere that we should dedicate the first 25 years of our lives to learning, the following 25 years to doing, and the last 25 years to teaching. Well, I just turned 50 this year, so it looks like I am right on track. Sharing my experience and the lessons learned has been both exhilarating and gratifying.
Throughout the rest of this book, I will share what we must do as leaders at home and at work to become stronger and leave a legacy we will never get to see. I’m not talking about magical spells or pixie dust but rather the tools and insights I have personally tested with the various teams, big and small, I’ve led during my career.
These tools work well because they helped me improve and hone my focus. No leader can be everywhere at once. We have to prioritize our time, attention, tasks, strategies, goals, and even relationships.
I wrote this book for people who live in the real world, with real issues and real pulls on their time. I wrote it for busy leaders at work and home, breaking it down into four sections—leading self, leading others, leading organizations, and leading change. Within each of those parts, I share stories and practical takeaways as well as self-assessment tools and research-based best practices. At the end of each chapter, you will also find an action plan called “Fast Track to Results” to help you set priorities and improve in the most important areas of your life for the greatest chance at positive results and success.
In addition to discussing the necessary tools to leading self, team, organization, and change, I will help you prioritize the most important aspects of your life and keep those focuses strong. That way, you can better determine how you should spend your time, make better decisions, and know when to sacrifice one thing for something more important.
How to Use This Book
Life is busy. I get it. We have so many things pulling on our time. We hear thousands of conflicting messages about business and life every day. It’s not easy to get motivated for something new, especially when we are unsure if it will work. It’s hard to keep going when adversity strikes. And, let’s face it, adversity will strike. At some point in time, we all struggle with lack of clarity, lack of time, lack of motivation, and even lack of self-discipline—I have overcome them all and helped thousands of other people navigate those challenges.
I anticipate that some people may not have a lot of extra time to read this book from cover to cover. If that’s you, don’t fear. I built the book to move quickly, with lessons that are easy to apply. You’ll find quick wins and action steps to keep improving. If you read it from cover to cover, you will likely see that the themes build on each other. But you may also find that you need more help with some areas than others. Most of us have areas of strength and areas of “opportunity.” The structure will help you see where you need to pay the most attention, and you will find the tools you need in the “Fast Track” section of each chapter.
What Success Looks Like
Before we move forward to the first part—Leading Self—I would like to take a minute to reflect on what success looks like in our world. As we have grown older, my wife and I have had many conversations about our lives. I’ve come to believe, from these conversations, that too many people allow others to define what their goals should be and what success looks like. Of course, social media has been a big contributor to this phenomenon. I used to struggle with this, too, comparing my situation to others’ to determine whether I was “successful” or not. I’d do this everywhere. With social media, it is easy to see perfectly framed snapshots from other people’s lives and decide that our lives should look exactly like that.
Looking back, I realize it makes no sense at all. Just outside of the most perfectly framed Instagram shot, chances are you’d find a crying baby, stressed spouse, or financial fiasco. The successful entrepreneur you admire may have zero quality of life. That runner you are trying to keep up with during a race may be struggling in many other ways or may have been training for years longer than you.
Determining your success based on the lives of others doesn’t work. Even if you wanted to, you literally could not know enough about other people’s lives to make an accurate comparison. So, my advice as you move forward with reading, reflecting, and taking action is to run your own race. Use the tools and insights as stepping stones to become a transformational leader and create the right culture for your kingdom. But only you get to decide what success looks like in your life; only you get to set your goals and decide when you have met those goals.
If all this talk about framework and leading yourself first is new to you, I understand. It can be hard to change after years or even decades of acting another way. Change is hard. Creating new habits is hard. I have attempted many new habits during the course of my life and have failed as many times as I have been successful. However, I have never stopped thinking about getting better, and I have never stopped trying to improve. Over time, that has helped me use my failures to fuel a better future.
As Rear Admiral Charles Norville Payne—my grandfather—wisely told me many years ago, “Do your best, and then forgive yourself.” That is really all we can do. Let’s get started!