Thoughts on Leadership: The Magic of Leaders

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me at the Tom Ferry Success Summit on Tuesday and Wednesday, and today I’m in Irvine for alignment meetings for our Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices and Real Living Real Estate brands.

Each year, Tom Ferry’s Success Summit is an opportunity to converge with top agents for learning, growing and idea-sharing. I’m always inspired during the event by the dedication and discipline exhibited by all those who attend. As Warren Buffett said, “By far the best investment you can make is in yourself.”

As far as leaders go, Tom Ferry is truly exemplary. He’s masterful at organizing an event filled with real, actionable value. The passion he brings to the stage is palpable and agents are presented with ideas, systems and methods to build stronger and more sustainable businesses. He’s as engaging as he is energetic; Tom has a unique ability to command a crowd of thousands while simultaneously making every person in the room feel like he’s speaking directly to them.

The Success Summit is also significant not just for what it does to transform leaders in real estate but also where it’s located: the Anaheim Convention Center, just a few blocks from Disneyland. Walking through Disneyland imbues a sense of childhood nostalgia and magical charm, a testament to Disney’s innovative founder, Walt Disney, and the imagination of all that he produced. In fact, Disneyland is the only theme park designed from start to finish under the direct supervision of Walt Disney.

Walt Disney was – and still is – a revered leader. His philosophies for executing on projects gained so much acclaim, there’s an entire organization called the Disney Institute dedicated to helping companies of all sizes grow based on the best practices introduced at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. As Walt Disney once said, “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

Here are a few more ways we can be inspired by the leadership of Walt Disney (and those who knew him) to transform our own teams and businesses just as he did years ago:

  • Failure is only one scene in the larger movie of your success. In September of 1918, when Walt Disney was just 17 years old, he joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps (allegedly, in part because he loved the costumes). After he returned home from the Ambulance Corps, he became an apprentice at a Kansas City art studio, which convinced him and his brother, Roy, they should start a studio of their own. Laugh-O-Gram Studio, a commercial cartoon business, was launched by the Disney brothers in 1920 but went bankrupt several years later. With only $40 to his name, Walt headed to Los Angeles, where he would eventually find his first success with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a star of one-reel animations. However, luck would abandon him yet again when a business meeting in New York revealed that his producer swiped Walt’s entire team of animators, along with the legal rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Dejected but far from done, Walt Disney took the train back to California and it was on this momentous ride he dreamed up a little character named “Mickey Mouse.”
  • Listen to your gut. When Walt Disney made the decision to launch Disneyland, he was betting on a dream most didn’t believe could become a profitable reality. Even his brother Roy, who guided the finances for Disney, thought Disneyland would fail. At first, after hearing Walt’s pitch, Roy wouldn’t even put up the funds to back the project. To create Disneyland, which Walt knew would be a success, he went around his brother and started a separate company to finance the build. As we all know, the risk paid off. Today, Disneyland is an integral part of the Disney empire and as the New York Times reported, for the 2018 fiscal year Walt Disney Parks and Resorts had an operating profit of $4.5 billion.
  • Adversity is the best thing for a leader with vision. When Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955 in Anaheim – just blocks from where I spent time this week at the Success Summit – it was as bad an opening as any business could experience. Counterfeit tickets meant more visitors than anticipated flooded the front gates – the team expected 5,000 people but 28,154 people arrived instead – and the line to enter the park measured seven miles long. In the mid-summer heat, temperatures skyrocketed like rollercoasters to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit; the new asphalt couldn’t hold up in the sweltering sun and began melting the bottoms of visitors’ shoes. As if that wasn’t enough, the drinking fountains didn’t work due to a recent plumber’s strike, restaurants ran out of food and drink, and many of the rides malfunctioned. Still, Walt Disney persevered, taking each problem and executing a solution to eliminate it. On Sept. 8, 1955 Disneyland celebrated its one millionth visitor, four-year-old Elsa Marquez. When reflecting on his challenges, Walt said: “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all the troubles and obstacles have strengthened me. You may not realize when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”
  • Don’t give up in the face of strong competition. Among Southern California amusement parks, Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm (opened in 1941) are two of the biggest names in all the land. The story of Knott’s Berry Farm is similar to Walt Disney’s: A 31-year-old Walter Knott dreamed up the idea with nothing more than $250 in his pocket and a worn-down Ford Model T that took his family to their new home in Buena Park, CA. In the 1950s, the Knotts were family friends with the Disneys … that is until Knott learned about Disneyland’s proximity to his park and worried it would stifle business. Knott said that on the opening day of Disneyland, he thought about shutting the gates of Knott’s Berry Farm and sending his employees home because he believed everyone would be at Disneyland. However, the troubles of Disneyland benefitted Knott’s Berry Farm; the park had its best day ever on the day Disneyland opened, and in 1955, experienced its best year since launch, proving competition can help, not hurt, a solid business.

So, what’s the message? When you’re committed to your success – like Walt Disney, like Walter Knott, like Tom Ferry and like the attendees at Tom Ferry’s Success Summit – then setbacks, even the big ones, aren’t ever enough to bring you down. Instead, they’re merely a natural part of the journey to success, inevitable to be encountered by any fearless leader focused on growth. Like Walt Disney said, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”

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