Respect and empathy can change lives

A highly capable Disney crisis team was already on the scene and Iger dictated a public statement.

By Theodore Kinni

Published: Mon 16 Dec 2019, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 16 Dec 2019, 9:44 PM

In June 2016, Bob Iger was in China overseeing preparations for the opening of Shanghai Disneyland. It was the culmination of an 18-year effort and a $6 billion investment that the CEO calls "the biggest accomplishment of my career." The day before the opening, as Iger was leading a VIP tour of the new park, he was informed that a two-year-old boy had been killed in an alligator attack at Walt Disney World in Florida.
A highly capable Disney crisis team was already on the scene and Iger dictated a public statement. Everything that could be done was being done, but the CEO felt compelled to try to speak to boy's parents. Once he got on the phone with the boy's father, Iger told him that he was a father, too, and a grandfather, but even so, he "couldn't fathom what they must be going through." Sobbing, the boy's father asked Iger to promise this would never happen to another child. He promised. "I sat there shaking on the edge of my bed," Iger writes in his book, 'The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company'. "I'd been crying so hard that both my contact lenses had come out." Being the skeptical type, I wondered about Iger's motives for telling it. He is as polished and professional an executive as I have ever seen, and a welcome contrast to two flavours of leaders that we see too often these days: posturing, blurting people who seem to have no self-control whatsoever; and cold, amoral automatons whose sole concern seems to be the value of their stock options.
Iger definitely isn't the former.  It's also odd that the empathy that Iger demonstrated during that call isn't one of the ten principles "necessary to true leadership" that he lists a few pages later. The closest he gets to it is the principle of fairness, which he says, requires empathy and accessibility. Yet, Iger's tenure at Disney is such a compelling testament to the power of empathy that both veteran and aspiring leaders should study it.
It's hard to fathom now, but 15 years ago, Disney was in the doldrums. CEO Michael Eisner's hot streak had run out years earlier and he had been pushed out of the company. Iger, who was COO under Eisner, was nowhere near a hands-down favourite to succeed him.
Iger sqeaked his way into job, but shareholders Roy Disney and Stanley Gold, who had been instrumental in ousting Eisner, promptly sued Disney's board for choosing him in what they claimed was a "fraudulent succession process." Iger says the suit was groundless, and the company could have fought and easily won it. Instead, he met with Gold and Disney and heard them out.
Iger put himself in Roy Disney's shoes-and realised how disrespected and hurt he felt by the company that his uncle and father had founded. Instead of calling in the lawyers, he offered Disney a ceremonial role at the company, a small consulting fee, and an office on the lot. "Just like that, a crisis that threatened to loom over my early days as CEO was resolved," writes Iger. "A little respect goes a long way, and the absence of it is often very costly. If you approach and engage people with respect and empathy, the seemingly impossible can become real."
-Source: LinkedIn. Theodore Kinni is a business writer and editor

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