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Walt Disney and Steve Jobs

I wish to write down a few thoughts about Steve Jobs and the impact he had on his organization and compare it to that of Walt Disney. I must also point out that it is my opinion that the current Walt Disney Company would do well to follow similar patterns.

As I type this, ABC Nightline states, “He was our Edison, our Disney, our Da Vinci.” Right now, the current leader of The Walt Disney Company is speaking about his friend and colleague Steve Jobs who died today.

Let me get right to my main point. If you look at cartain aspects of Jobs’ leadership at Apple in recent years and compare them to certain aspects of Walt Disney’s leadership back in his day you see many similarities. Neither was perfect. Both men had his share of follies. I won’t say one is more important than the other. We’re not here to do that.

Both of these men were a father-figure type leader of their company. Both men were trusted by their organization for their vision, proven record, genius, and even personality. Both leaders had a positive and popular public image (for the most part). Both leaders were pleasant yet frank. Neither put up with crap from the people around them. Both leaders were extremely aware of their company's history, both good and bad.

Both of their companies had focus. Both of their companies could focus because neither was too widely spread. Disney at the time had essentially two divisions– The Studio (animation, live-action film) and Disneyland. Apple has essentially two divisions as well– Hardware and Software. Both men knew quite well how much to expand their company. More importantly, perhaps, both knew when not to expand. Walt could have put a Disneyland in any number of places but he wisely limited this. Though Apple Stores are now beginning to dot the globe, Steve was very select in his placement of these stores. Jobs is known to simplify his product line-up. Apple could have manufacturing hundreds of gadgets but Jobs saw wisdom in seeking perfection in only a few core products.

Neither leader was driven by money only. Both knew the value of a quality product (Mac-haters, bear with me...). Both leaders cared more about a customer's experience with a product than the money it would generate. Both held back from releasing products if the product was not just right. Both Disney and Jobs knew that if something was done right, people would pay and money wouldn’t be a problem.

Both leaders had a knack for picking business and creative leaders. Both owned top animation studios. :) Both were innovators. Both developed concepts that proved to be timeless. Walt’s “formula” for building and maintaining a theme park still stands as the most successful and beloved of any in the world. Steve’s ideas about accessable entertainment and communication changed the way everyone would operate– even if you don’t own a single Apple product. Both developed specific technologies and techniques that left all their competitors in the dust. Both paid less attention on what others were doing and more attention on what they weren't doing. Both sought out to do what had never been done before. Neither had a tendancy for low-risk, play-it-safe behavior yet both were wise in their "gambles".

People around the world could hardly wait to see what both these men would present next. Few corporate leaders were household names like these two. Few corporate heads have ever had fans. Few corporate heads have directly affected the day-to-day entertainment of so many people.

Interestingly enough, both presented plans for a circular community shortly before dying:

Both men died young. Walt in his mid-60s and Steve in his mid-50s. 

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Reader Comments (17)

Damn good comparison and article. Cheers!

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLoa Shelley


October 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjordan

Thank for this great article.

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike

This was great!

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDonnie

Thank you Mitch. Very well written. Words that I couldn't come up with, but I agree whole-heartedly.

The two people, whom I never met, that have affected me more than any other are Walt Disney and Steve Jobs.

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Alldridge


I might add that neither man looked to duplicate what was already popular. They looked to create what would be popular down the road. In other words, they were not copy cats. Disney today is the ultimate try-to-keep-up-with-current-trends company.

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSkipper8085

Great post. I had some of the same thoughts which I wrote about on my own blog here. You take the comparison much further and it is all very true. Thanks for the post.

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott

I think the main and greatest thing Jobs shared with Disney was faith, that inner conviction that, beyond rationality, common sense and even intelligence. It's so well expressed in Job's "Don't settle", which equals Disney's "I've traded security for self-respect". "Don't settle" means, ultimately; don't disrespect yourself". Such courage is a response to the mystical call (name it guts, heart, intuition, whatever, but it's beyond, it's mystical). It's there for all, but blessed are those who can hear it!

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEleonora Duvivier

Great post.

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNiki

I also thought the same exact thing. They asked their employees to think differently, they were passionate about their product, they persevered though tough times. Great comparison.

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDarryl

Amen to that!!

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterConnie

This came to mind when I heard that Steve Jobs had passed on, great comparison. Good post!

October 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJo

Very true. Say for the fact that Jobs admits that he didn't spend enough time with his children, both had very similar career paths and, unfortunately, died young.

RIP Steve, we'll miss you.

October 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterM. Gracey

Good essay. The similarities between the two also struck me, especially after it dawned on me that Jobs was the largest shareholder of Disney stock.

I think Apple will fare a little better than Disney in the late 60s/70s as while Jobs passing was still a shock, it wasn't unexpected like Walt's was. Jobs had been diagnosed years ago, so plans were surely developed and are in place. I also think that since the company is not named after its co-founder, the psychological barrier on both the employees and consumers will be less of a struggle than the Walt Disney Co. faced.

October 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterunitedstyle

Amazing post. Well put.

October 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Mitch - I've just come across this post today, so forgive my tardiness in commenting. There is a much deeper theme in the Apple/Disney similarities which you might find interesting; Apple was strongly influenced by a method called Design Thinking, which is taught at Stanford University and was formulated by Robert McKim, James Adams and Matt Kahn, in the 60's.

Imagineering and Design Thinking have very clear parallels, once you translate the descriptive terms from Walt's visual arts context into Product Design's product development context. Further back, it looks like there may even be a common root in the methods of Leonardo da Vinci, but I need to do some more research to verify that.

I worked for Apple for ten years and have a BSE from Stanford's Product Design program and have recently begun to explore Disney in depth. It's been a very rewarding, revealing and integrating experience. I'm looking forward to exploring your site.

November 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDexter Francis

While many of the similarities you point out are true and valid, there are some pretty big differences. Steve Jobs did not seem to share Walt's appetite for "talking to the little guy" and for getting good ideas from whoever had them. By most accounts, he was much more of a "my way or the highway" kind of leader. In addition, I wouldn't say his company trusted him in the way that Disney's trusted him, especially since they kicked Jobs out of his own company at one point, if you'll remember. By many accounts, Steve Jobs was not a generally nice guy...that is not usually the image of Walt that people have. I also feel that a lot of Disney's success with the parks was because of Walt's careful attention to people and how they behave. Conversely, if you think about the features (or lack of features) in various generations of the iPhone, as an example, while Jobs was still alive, he was more inclined to use features to dictate how people used their devices rather than the other way around. (and yes, I'm an iPhone user)

Some of these issues may seem like a bit of splitting hairs, but I feel they're important differences.

February 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLou Zucaro

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