Photo of Walt Disney courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry's Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives exhibit. © Disney
Pat Williams isn’t your typical NBA executive. Not many — or perhaps no other person in the world of professional sports — can say they’ve written more than 70 books, many of which are on leadership.
When I first read a PR pitch offering an opportunity to talk with Williams, the senior vice president of the Orlando Magic, about his book on Walt Disney, I was intrigued. Then the book came, and I was immediately disappointed.
After thumbing to the copyright page, I saw “How to Be Like Walt” had been published 10 years ago. Too old to be relevant, I thought.
But my curiosity got the best of me, and I read it anyway. What I realized was that the world Disney built still resonates in the movies and attractions his company creates and especially the management style that people gravitate to as they attend courses at the Disney Institute and read biographies on him.
The lessons from Disney’s career are still relevant today, and as many Disney employees attest, it’s like Walt Disney is still watching over his creation — like he never left.
Disney never gave up when it came to achieving his goals — “sticktoitivity” as he called it. He was not one to throw out praise and he constantly pushed people to improve the quality of the final product, but he also was an impeccable judge of talent.
Listening back on the interview with Williams, I was surprised how many times “Walt” was mentioned. Not “Disney.” While Disney’s possible prejudices are still being debated, to many people he’ll always be “Uncle Walt.”
Williams and I discussed the avuncular Disney’s career and a number of other topics, including Williams’ recent battle with cancer.
Below is an edited transcript of part one of our interview.
Whatever Works: What did Walt Disney know about creativity and innovation that today’s companies do not? It seems like everyone’s talking about innovation, but Disney basically did innovation.
Pat Williams: Well, I don’t think he spent a lot of time doing studies and examinations. I think he listened to his staff, he listened to his customers, and then he just did things. He was not spending a lot of time tied up in projects that weren’t leading somewhere, that weren’t leading to a new film or a new ride at Disneyland or something else that was exciting to him. The real strength that he had — he was awfully creative and he had all these ideas flowing. But the key to it all was he knew what the public would pay for.
WW: He wasn’t into analytics like companies are today. How was he able to be successful without that crutch?
Williams: I think if he liked it, that was enough. And if his people, if his staff, were all opposed to something, Walt knew that it was going to work. He knew that he had a good idea. If everybody in his shop was saying, ‘It’s not going to work,’ Walt, then, was convinced he had a winner. The other key, of course, was his brother, Roy [Disney]. They were quite a remarkable team, and you see a few of them along the way: [Bill] Hewlett and [Dave] Packard, Ben [Cohen] and Jerry [Greenfield], Roy and Walt Disney, Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel at Amway — very, very tight partnerships. But one is an outside guy and one is an inside guy.
Walt was constantly dreaming and creating and coming up with these incredible thoughts and ideas, and then Roy somehow had to make it work, had to put shoe leather to it. So they were quite a team, and without Roy, I don’t think Walt would have had anywhere near the success he had.
WW: Walt Disney really didn’t care what the board had to say when he was deciding to make a movie, he didn’t care what things cost, but as you mentioned Roy Disney was kind of the numbers-crunching guy, and he’d be the one who would find a way to make it work. Can you talk a little bit about your career and any big chances you’ve taken?
Williams: The biggest one was when I left Philadelphia [he was the general manager of the 76ers] in the summer of 1986 and moved here to Orlando with the mission of trying to create an NBA basketball team from scratch, an expansion team [the Magic became an NBA franchise in 1989]. Orlando in 1986 was a far cry from what it is today. It was really a roll of the dice as I look back, trying to convince the community that we can do it and then trying to convince the NBA owners and the commissioner that Orlando was going to be a good, solid city for professional basketball. So we were successful in convincing them. The dream became a reality, so that was by far the biggest leap of faith that I’ve ever taken in my professional career. And one of the things that happened when I got here, I got ‘Disneyized.’
WW: Disney took some big risks in his career. Did he ever say to himself, ‘Wow, if I do this and I fail all of my employees could be out of jobs’?
Williams: I don’t think he did. I think he was so focused on his vision, had such confidence in what he was doing and his own ability, and believed so devoutly that this was going to work, I don’t think he ever thought that way. Perfect example was ‘Snow White’ when he did a full-fledged animated movie, which had never been done. And the feeling was that if you did something like that, the whole world was going to collapse. Eight minutes was the limit on any cartoon. That was it. And anything more than eight, the world would unravel. Well, Walt went to work on this project, and mortgaged his home and mortgaged all his life insurance, and got a loan finally from a bank in San Francisco to help get it finished. And it was an enormous risk. But in December of 1937, they launched it, and it was a magnificent success.
[It] was the first time Walt had any money. And with it he built that studio in Burbank, California, which is still there, still houses a lot of their projects. That was a big breakthrough for Walt.
But he never stopped. He always was looking for the next project, the next exciting adventure. Listen, the launch of Disneyland, everybody said that that was a loser, that wasn’t going to work. I remember talking to Art Linkletter before his death, and Walt invited Art — they were good friends — to partner with him. And Art declined, said, ‘Nope. I’m not going to do that.’ And then he said later as they were walking the grounds out there, ‘Every step I took back to my car that day cost me $3 million a step.’
And then Walt had another idea, another theme park in Orlando. Art didn’t think that was a good idea. He said there’s only one Grand Canyon. There’s only one Disneyland. And then Art jokingly said later, ‘That’s the last time I’m going to give advice to Walt.’
WW: Do you think Walt would have been disappointed in the way Epcot turned out?
Williams: Probably. He had much grander plans for that, much bigger ideas. It would have been a totally different concept [an actual futuristic city that people would live in], so Epcot did not work out the way he had planned. In fact, on his last breath, when he was dying in the hospital bed, he was pointing out to his brother, Roy, up there on those beaver boards on the ceiling of the hospital, he was outlining how he wanted Epcot to look. That was his last waking moment, or last living moment. And then Roy had the responsibility of getting all that moving and getting Disney World opened. Roy was ready to retire, but he had no choice after Walt’s death. I still think what would have happened if Walt lived. His one great fault were cigarettes. He just basically killed himself with cigarettes, but he died at 65.
WW: I know a few years ago you were diagnosed with cancer and you’ve written a book about that recently called “The Mission Is Remission.” Did you take any inspiration from how Walt lived the last few years of his life when you were going through your battle with cancer?
Williams: I think there was no question Walt didn’t slow down. He kept pushing, even though I’m sure he didn’t feel well and he was sick. He just kept going, and he continued to produce some marvelous things at the end of his life. I learned that, and the doctors reiterated, ‘Don’t sit on the sideline. You go live your life. We’ll tuck the medical stuff around your life. Keep producing, keep doing what you’re doing, and don’t slow down. Don’t let cancer put you on the shelf.’ Good counsel. It was really good advice, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last 3 ½ years to continue doing everything I normally would be doing, and see the doctors when I have to and listen to them. But don’t sit home just moping and giving up. So I’m living as fully as I ever have, and if I don’t feel good or if I get tired, I just take a nap and get up and start all over again.
WW: And write another book.
Williams: Yep. Get up and write another book. <laughs>
WW: Last year we did a story about cancer in the workplace and we quoted Jonny Imerman, the founder of Imerman Angels, a cancer support network, and he said, ‘What is the fear? I realize that those who are executives or CEOs don’t want to be perceived as weak or as losing a battle, but I don’t agree personally. Cancer is a part of life.’ As an executive, were you ever concerned about the news getting out there that you had cancer?
Williams: Yes. Sure. Initially, I didn’t want anybody to know, and let me just deal with this but don’t show signs of weakness or that I’m in trouble. I understand fully, but when you think about it, it wasn’t practical. I was going to have to tell my children. The other issue was: The news was going to leak, and I just couldn’t sit on it or deny it. It was just inevitable. So we made a decision to call a press conference and let the press meet the doctors, and my children were with me. We just explained exactly what was going on, and presented it in a positive light that I was going to continue on and the prognosis was good. I was going to continue to work. So we laid it out there pretty frankly. And I think that’s the way you have to do it. You can’t deny all this. What are you going to do, hide it? And eventually it leaks out. So a leak is poor. You don’t want that to happen. We took a proactive approach. And I would recommend anybody doing that.
In the second part of this interview, Williams answers the question about whether Walt Disney would have embraced social media, explains the Disney concept of “plussing” and gives his take on how the NBA handled the Donald Sterling situation.