Discovering Wisdom in Disney’s Collaborative Style

disneyChange the World…this is a statement I often reiterate in the staff meetings and hallways of Harold Martin School. I hope that this singular passion for children may ignite the passion of teachers as they face the mundane parts of teaching as well as the “light bulb” moments.  But it takes more than words to develop an organization into a “Great Group”. The story of Walt Disney and his unprecedented business and creative success stems from his ability to radically inspire hundreds of employees through a largely collaborative model. Authors Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman in Organizing Genius; The Secrets of Creative Collaboration chronicle leaders who used collaboration to achieve success. Disney is but one example in this book along with Clinton, Jobs,  Oppenheimer and others.

Disney created “synergy” in his organization.
Perhaps the greatest strength of a professional learning community (PLC) is the synergy that exists when teams of teachers gather to develop creative solutions to teaching and learning. Clearly, the power of three, four, or five teachers around a table is exponential, not numerical. This is synergy in action. The Disney Corporation in now able to churn out one animated movie per year. This could never happen without synergetic collaboration.

Disney recruited the best artists and creative people.
A Principal’s most important job is hiring and retaining the best teachers. This is why most school administrators relish the thought of opening up a brand new building, with the ability to hire a completely new staff. Disney understood that while he must hire the “best”, he must also provide quality professional development. Even in the early days of his company, he took his animators out of a productive role and patiently sent them to one of the best art schools in the country before they came back to produce.

Disney knew how to “plan for what has not yet happened”. (p. 40)
Disney’s early success came from the founder being able to envision the future of his industry before anyone else could. He took the time to think and create, while his brother Roy took care of the business and logistical end of the company. In the same way, the Principal has to guard against simply “keeping the trains running on time” without setting a priority for vision and planning continuous improvement.

Disney was not a micro-manager.
Collaboration is confounded by autocratic leadership. While Walt Disney was a man with high expectations, occasionally given to bouts of anger, he was content to let his creative staff create. He knew when to veto a project and he often described himself as a “bee” pollinating his ideas from team to team, employee to employee, so that his vision permeated the entire organization. His staff also celebrated their success with vigor and Walt allowed his people to relax by playing football and croquet in the corridors.

The Disney workplace was often a “harsh place to work in” (p. 51) but state of the art tools were provided to do the job right.
A harsh working environment is truly not necessary to motivate people; Walt may have been subject to an antiquated leadership style, but he knew how to equip his team. Teachers need the right tools to be truly collaborative and effective in their instruction. When a leader fights for a full teacher tool box, he/she also gains legitimacy among those who brandish the tools.

People worked at Disney because they knew they were part of something great.
Retention of superb staff is as difficult as hiring them in the first place. I want my staff to be passionate, creative, and hard-working primarily for the good of each of their students, but they also need the same zeal for the entire organization. Is the reputation of my school one of continuous improvement, ingenuity, and leadership? Walt Disney attracted and preserved his staff by instilling loyalty to Walt Disney and the Disney company, not necessarily through generous salaries.

Walt Disney redefined success through business practices that were largely collaborative, tapped into the talent of many, granted creative freedom to his employees and retained them through a vision that convinced his people that they were “changing the world”.

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