Podcast #8: The Creator’s Formula with Walt Disney & Michael Bonadies
Lillian Disney could sense something big brewing in early 1952. It was one of those times, she would say, when “Walt’s imagination was going to take off and go into the wild blue yonder and everything will explode.” Walt began liquidating long-held family assets, borrowing against his life insurance policy, selling properties, and even selling the rights to his own name. Walt Disney was planning something new—he was planning to kick down the walls dividing his movies and real life.
When Disney’s children were very young, he’d tried to take them to places where their imaginations could run wild. But every carnival or fair seemed to be dirty, poorly run, and filled with vice. Walt wanted to create a place where people could take their family and forget the concerns of the everyday world—a place beautiful, safe, and filled with endless wonder. So at about the same time that he had started selling assets and conserving his capital, he pulled aside one of his art directors and had him begin working on concept sketches for a new kind of amusement park. The sketches started to illustrate the vision he had in his head, a utopian world where guests would enter a fairytale world.
Ever since his early days as a Kansas City artist and animator, Walt had a unique belief in the power of his thoughts. As time went on, he became expert at manifesting his dreams into physical forms, often creating the necessary technology as he went. But nothing prepared him for the challenge of manifesting Disneyland—taking the imaginary world of his movies and making it literally concrete. Disneyland would transport visitors into a captivating three-dimensional story, a sprawling material incarnation of a wonderland that began as a vision, then lived on screens.
Disney knew little about the experiential side of entertainment; his expertise and success was in storytelling through the mediums of animation, film, and television. To make his dream world a reality, Disney chose some of the studio’s most talented individuals, took a small building on the Disney lot, and formed a new company, WED Enterprises—an acronym for Walter Elias Disney. This interdisciplinary dream team would be tasked with creating the design, development, and construction of Disneyland—not only doing something that none of them had done before, but that no one had done before. They represented an extraordinary group of storytellers, engineers, animators, contractors, directors, writers, artists, set designers, lighting designers, sound engineers, and many others. WED employees would interpret the Disney stories by building beautiful sets and giving them the interactivity and resilience to wow thousands of guests daily.
The plans for the 160-acre site called for 5,000 cubic yards of concrete and a million square feet of asphalt. The designs included a replica of an 1800s main street, manmade riverbeds for steamboats and jungle cruises, a mile of railroad tracks, and a full-scale Bavarian castle. Walt was at the construction site pushing the WED team every day, giving his attention to every detail, every blade of grass, every leaf on every tree. As former Disney executive vice president and Imagineer Marty Sklar remembers, “The thing we worked so hard to avoid is letting people out of the story with discordant details…. Even the trash cans in the park are for that particular story or theme.” The attention to detail and level of execution were extraordinary. “His animations,” Sklar recalls, “created a perfect and artificial world, and what he was really doing was making that material in Disneyland. He always thought of Disneyland as a living animation, a living movie, and he thought that people would love to enter a film, not just watch it.”
Just like the final cut of a movie before it’s released to theaters, Disneyland had to be perfect. The day before the park opened, one crew was trying to dig out a 900-pound mechanical elephant that was sinking, another put lead weights onto a train so it wouldn’t tip over when riders came on board, and Walt himself spray-painted backdrops for the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit. No detail was too small. The park officially opened on July 17, 1955, with the biggest, most ambitious live-television broadcast ever. The next day, people began lining up to be first through the gates. Disneyland drew a million visitors in its first ten weeks; within two years it was drawing five million visitors annually. In 2017, it drew 18.3 million people.
The WED team—now known as the Imagineers—had combined their moviemaking acumen with hard work and ingenuity to prove firsthand what the watchers of their films had always believed—if you dream something, it can come true. They had transformed an orange grove into the Magic Kingdom by combining Walt’s purpose with a wealth of experienced creativity and flawless execution. The Imagineers had made the magic real.
Today, the Imagineers continue to combine their storytelling ability with innovative technology to create magic, holding over one hundred patents in special effects, ride systems, interactive technology, live entertainment, fiber optics, and advanced audio systems. Disney Theme Parks have introduced a multitude of technological landmarks such as Audio-Animatronics and computer-controlled thrill rides. While the Imagineers have an explicit mandate, tremendous resources, and the freedom to combine purpose, creativity, and execution that some creators may never have, it’s the simplified principles we learn from their work that matter most. What would happen if you were on a ride at one of the Disney parks and there was a glitch in the system? Or you had a poor food experience at one of the restaurants? Immediately, the glow they worked so hard to create would begin to fade. And that perspective applies to all creative endeavors. If you’re an amazing writer but you don’t spellcheck or post regularly on your blog, you aren’t executing. If you’re an amazing chef but you can’t scale your cooking to work in a restaurant, catering operation, or some meaningful platform for sharing, you aren’t executing. If you’re a filmmaker but can’t seem to complete a film, then you aren’t executing (and, really, you aren’t a filmmaker).
The fact is, your creative potential is unrealized without execution. You love Apple products not only because they’re beautiful, you love them because they work really well. You love your favorite restaurant not only because the food is great, but because it’s consistently great. A product, a brand, and even a person—think of those you know—whenever you have an interaction with one of these entities, they’re setting expectations. Whether or not they live up to those expectations determines whether your feelings toward them are good, bad, or indifferent.
Once again, our story comes back to the most simple human interactions. Do you provide more or less value than you promise? Do you live up to your commitments? Do you deliver on your promises? Are you a flawless executor? Or, as Bob Iger, chief executive of Disney said about Walt and his Imagineers, “Walt set a standard early on with the Imagineers. There was a standard that enabled people to come in expecting something and then giving something even beyond that. So they left thinking, How did Disney do that?” Walt Disney always lived up to his word, he always tried to exceed expectations, and he always backed up his dreams with execution. That’s why he was able to share so much of his creativity with so much of the world.
Note: Our story about Disney and impeccable execution comes with an asterisk. Your need to flawlessly execute must never come before your desire to create something truly special. More often than not, executors or operators overestimate the importance of mistake-free execution and sacrifice the soul of the idea or the purpose of the organization just to make sure the trains run on time. That’s never okay. Think of managing this process as if it’s a triangle: on the top of the triangle is Walt, the visionary; the Imagineers, the creatives, are in one of the angles; the Disneyland operations team are in the other. The job of the creator—in this case Walt—is to manage both sides of the triangle in order to ensure that the vision is never compromised. This is done by balancing the decision-making power and enabling an honest and open dialogue that ensures all decisions favor the preeminent manifestation of purpose.
There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life—happiness, freedom, and peace of mind—are always attained by giving them to someone else.
—General Peyton C. March, U.S. Army Chief of Staff
Michael Bonadies is my mentor; sometimes I call him my work father. He’s a big man, well past six feet, burly, bearded, energetic. He has three sons, wrote a book on wine, opened a ton of restaurants and hotels (including the legendary Nobu), and has a lovely wife named Anne, who happens to be of Persian descent, like mine. While these aspects describe him, what defines Michael is that he cares. You feel that generosity of spirit when you’re part of his world. Through actions, not words, Michael is there for me, and I know I can count on him, in both good times and bad.
I met Michael years ago as an intern for the Myriad Restaurant Group. Myriad, a company Michael founded with Drew Nieporent, was the forerunner to many modern restaurant groups throughout the world today. From one restaurant, Montrachet, sprang dozens, most of them star-studded, with partners like Robert De Niro and investors like Bill Murray and Sean Penn. As a student at Cornell,I’d read about Michael’s restaurants, heard his partner speak, and wanted in on the action. I landed a spot in their coveted management training program and got some brief exposure to Michael’s world.
Fast forward a decade, when our paths crossed again: this time I was the one running the company and Michael was the consultant.
Knowing I had come through Myriad, Michael relished seeing my success and began coaching me through every step of my growth. He helped me with lessons from his journey and gifted me with the confidence to trust my instincts and follow my dreams. Michael made himself available for countless breakfasts, lunches, late-night phone calls, and text messages, and also was in the front row at my son’s bris, provided me pointers on creating a healthy marriage, and took my wife and me to dinner. I can say without a doubt that I wouldn’t have been as successful in my career or my life had it not been for Michael’s love and support.
It’s interesting to note that Michael doesn’t only mentor me; he’s a mentor to dozens of the biggest names in the hospitality business, not to mention to his own children. And while sometimes he’s paid for his services, more often he isn’t. Either way, he always makes the people he cares about feel important. He takes the time to know them and makes sure they know he cares. That unique ability—to wrap his heart around you and make you feel that what you’re dealing with is the most important thing in his world—is something only someone with emotional generosity can do, and Michael embodies that magical power.
Emotional generosity is when an individual or organization combines empathy—the willingness to feel, understand, and share another person’s experiences and emotions—and sacrifice, surrendering something you need or desire so that someone else can have it. The result of combining these two attributes is trust: the belief that someone or something is good, honest, and reliable. And when someone trusts you, they’re willing to emotionally connect with you. That connection, that bond, is invaluable, both in personal relationships and organizational loyalty and growth. When people feel trust and connection, they allow themselves to be taken on a journey, and that’s what makes it possible to create something truly special.
Let’s dive a little deeper. Take a moment and think of your most selfish acquaintances. Do you trust them? Absolutely not. No one wants to be friends with someone who’s selfish, self-involved, or manipulative. On the other hand, we all want to be friends with someone who’s emotionally generous—someone supportive, loving, caring, and connected. As mentioned earlier, organizations are no different, because they’re made up of and sell to—you guessed it—people. Therefore, in order to manifest the wonderful in your life and business, emotional generosity must be a key part of how you operate, communicate, and think. That explains why actions such as email spamming, chronic discounting, and disconnected customer service aren’t effective in the long term. These actions are lazy and show a lack of authentic care and meaningful connection. If you take the time to make a personal call to a client, create content that is deeply creative, or fix something because it’s the right thing to do for the customer despite your bottom line, you’re being emotionally generous. Shortcuts don’t work because by nature they show you don’t really care about the customer’s needs more than your own. Manipulating a customer into action is no different from manipulating a friend to get your way. True emotional generosity combines action and intention to create lasting connection.
Let’s go back to Michael for a moment. While he was there during the good times, it was his presence during tougher times that solidified my trust, loyalty, and respect for him. You see, the first time I was promoted to chief marketing officer, I never received more gifts and cards during a holiday season, ever. I was sent more champagne than I could possibly drink. But a couple of years later, things weren’t so rosy, and it was around the holidays that I was going through some real struggles. The gifts that year were far fewer, and Michael was no longer on the receiving end of business from me or my company. But guess what? Michael was more present in my life than ever. He invited me to a holiday lunch with him and his son, he actively coached me on my writing, and he met with me more than he ever did when I was his client. Michael became one of my closest friends.
It was at that point I fully appreciated Michael’s generous spirit, his lack of selfish motives. By giving himself to people like me, he gives himself the greatest gift imaginable: Michael fills his world with an energy and fulfillment that will sustain him well beyond his ability to contribute.
And that’s the biggest lesson we can learn from Michael, a principle that applies to all individuals and organizations: by generously manifesting your purpose and sharing it without selfish motives, you create things that sustain well beyond your ability to personally contribute.
If that sounds a bit mystical, that’s because it is. But let me frame it more practically.
In our new paradigm, your business must make people feel. The people who need to feel good about your brand are your customers, and your job is to make them happy. Customers are happy when they feel you understand their needs and are willing to sacrifice to make sure they’re met. This sacrifice can manifest itself in many forms—from working extra-hard to provide the goods or services you promised, or going above and beyond to fix something that went wrong. Whatever you do, when you meet the needs of your customers consistently and exceed their expectations with more care for their happiness than your bottom line, you become worthy of loyalty and trust. That loyalty and trust strengthens the connection that’s the bedrock of a great brand and a key component of unlocking your creative potential. That’s what it means for an organization to be emotionally generous.
Note: There is such a thing as being too emotionally generous, which can negatively impact the core health of the individual or the organization. For example, if a customer has a negative experience, you may be able to show your care by speaking to them directly or even refunding their check. But if you’re consistently refunding checks over a sustained period of time, you either need to fix the service or, if it’s just a few consistently problematic people, lose the customer. The same applies to individuals: there are extreme situations in which people give to others without taking care of themselves, and ultimately that is unsustainable. You must always protect the core health of the individual or organization prior to servicing the needs of third parties.