5 Leadership Lessons from Disney-Pixar


When I sat down to write my latest article, I started thinking about what makes a leader great. Are people born with the personality traits and charisma to lead? Do we learn leadership like any other skill? Or just maybe it is a combination of both and relies on the right set of events, circumstances or a defining moment that allows natural ability and situational learning to intersect and bring out the greatness in an individual.  

We can intellectualise the whole debate, discussing the main theories over the last 70 years. I prefer to take a different approach and see what values are being ingrained into our youngest members of society by one of the most influential sources in history. In other words, what does Disney-Pixar teach our children through their movies, cartoons and characters? There are so many to choose from, but certain values of leadership dominate many of these stories – and have been enthralling audiences of all ages since Steamboat Willie in 1928.

Having thought about it and doing the “tough” groundwork of watching most of their movies, I put together a list that seems to resonate with hundreds of millions of people worldwide across generations, cultures and continents. Oh, and to be honest, I have never enjoyed doing “research” more for any article or blog I have written. So back to the point, these are the qualities that Disney leaders possess:

  1. Courage – This is an obvious quality and is shown at some point or another by almost all the heroes in Disney-Pixar movies from Woody and Buzz Lightyear to Mowgli and Mulan.
  2. A healthy dose of curiosity and ingenuity – These are the main characteristics of Carl Fredricksen in Up, where with the assistance of thousands of balloons he intends exploring South America, which was also a promise to the love of his life.
  3. The ability to overcome adversity and obstacles – How many great leaders have had to overcome hardship, duplicity and loss only to return with more determination and to create a lasting impression on others? Simba had to do this in The Lion King
  4. Loyal relationships and friendships – Have you ever noticed how there is always a “sidekick” in Disney-Pixar shows? Someone who acts as a conscience, a confidant and in some cases complements the attributes and skills of the hero. Pinocchio has Jiminy Cricket, Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian and Aladdin has Abu and Genie. Great leaders don’t create relationships so that when they do fail, there is always someone to help them get up again.  
  5. Perseverance and a strong sense of purpose – Even the most unlikely individual can be a great leader. Marlin never gave up on his goal of finding Nemo, neither did Wall-E of exploring the stars. No matter how insurmountable the ocean currents or travelling through space were these unexpected heroes showed qualities that any great leader would be proud to have –  and more importantly – that can create a combined sense of purpose among their followers. 

If you look hard enough there are many more leadership qualities that Disney-Pixar encourages. We all learn life lessons from the ordeals of the characters. We feel their emotions; we laugh with them; we cry with them. We learn to empathise with them. But despite this not everyone becomes a great leader. Walt Disney and everything Disney has always shown us the answer to this. You don’t realise it until it literally smacks you in the face!

Disney is about one thing; the vision of Walt Disney himself – Making People Happy. If it does not make people happy, they simply do not do it. But making people happy is not the overarching factor that makes a great leader – it is the creation and constant striving of an undeniable, all-encompassing and uncompromising vision that makes leaders great! Great leaders have this vision and then build on that vision courageously and with absolute determination; building a loyal following as they explore new ways to ingeniously overcome the inevitable challenges that come their way, while always appreciating what they have.

No two quotes from Disney-Pixar exemplify the essence of a leader better:

“To infinity and beyond” (Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 1995)

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the “present”.” (Master Oogway in Kung Fu Panda 2008) 

Jared is a Human Capital and Strategy Specialist with a passion for strategic people development, enterprise development and getting things done. He is the founder and principal consultant of Qhubeka Consulting and a partner at KVR Training and Business Consulting.

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