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Thursday, July 18, 2019

Dear Bob: Do You Have Leader-Storytellers Running Star Wars and Pixar?

by Ray Keating
July 18, 2019

Dear Bob,

I’m starting to wonder if you have the right people in some key leadership posts at Disney.

Over at the Harvard Business Review, in an article titled “Building a Startup That Will Last,” the authors, Hemant Taneja and Ken Chenault, wrote:

Disney CEO Bob Iger has enabled the company to remain an innovative powerhouse by opening the process for creative decision-making to other leaders. As the company acquired widely recognized brands – from Lucasfilm to Marvel and Fox – he provided those leadership teams with autonomy so that they could thrive within the Disney ecosystem. Disney’s continuing success long after the passing of its iconic founder is a testament to the power of a system of leadership that endures over time. 

As someone who taught courses in innovation and entrepreneurship, leadership and strategic management for MBA students for a decade, I like this. But it also has to be understood that if the leadership team is not getting the job done, then there should be consequences. My question is: Does Disney have Disney-style leaders in place?

My concerns spring from recent films from the Star Wars/Lucasfilm and Pixar units. Each film – Star Wars: The Last Jediand Toy Story 4– fell far short of the quality storytelling that Disney needs to produce. Specifically, Luke Skywalker, and Woody and Buzz Lightyear – the key characters in the Star Warsand Toy Storyuniverses, respectively – abandoned qualities foundational to each character. 

We’re suddenly expected to believe that Luke succumbed to darkness and despair, abandoned his friends, and stood on the brink of killing his nephew. This was the guy who saw good in Darth Vader!? Come on, Bob. 

And Woody decided that his core belief that toys find their purpose in being there for a child, well, didn’t seem to be all that important. Instead, Woody seemed to succumb to a kind of mid-life crisis, and abandoned his family and purpose. At the same time, when Buzz managed to be wedged into Toy Story 4, he had regressed from where he was in the first three movies, and became, well, a bit of an idiot. Really? Gee, thanks for these unfortunate changes.

While the writers and directors must take the brunt of well-deserved criticisms here – especially Last Jediwriter and director Rian Johnson, who has shown no regard for Star Warsfans – the people in charge should not escape serious review. While the current heads of Pixar and Disney animation only came on board a year ago, given the Lasseter mess, perhaps they can be forgiven. But they need to be reminded of what was lost in Toy Story 4. As for Kathleen Kennedy, though, she has been alone at the helm of Lucasfilm since June 2013. And her track record raises serious questions, to say the least, given that The Last Jediarguably ranks as the worst Star Warsmovie, with the following film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, suffering the worst box-office showing.

One of the key requirement for leaders at Disney is that they must be more than managers and leaders. They need to be storytellers. At the very least, they need to recognize good and bad storytelling, especially when it comes to iconic franchises and characters. 

It’s time to do a review, Bob, to make sure that Disney has leader-storytellers at the top of each of its divisions. And if not, changes need to be made.

Thanks for the consideration, and have a magical day!

Ray Keating

Ray Keating is the editor, publisher and economist for DisneyBizJournal.com, and author of the Pastor Stephen Grant novels. He can be contacted at  raykeating@keatingreports.com.

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