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Impressions of “The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of Walt Disney Company,” by Robert Iger with Joel Lovell

Ride of a Lifetime is the business memoir of Bob Iger, the former CEO of the Walt Disney Company. Before this book, I knew Iger primarily as the once-incoming CEO who saved Disney’s relationship with Pixar and who stepped down as Disney+ was taking off as a new streaming service. The book, which focuses primarily on Iger’s career through Disney and two predecessor companies American Broadcasting Company and Capital Cities/ABC, gives better insight into Iger’s background, his personality, and his accomplishments as CEO. This seems to be one of the most authentic business books by a corporate leader as I read, as the writer and protagonist come across as accomplished, untrustworthy, and unlikeable.

Like books by leaders of companies like Compaq, Nokia, Microsoft, and IBM, Ride of a Lifetime contains self-praise. Iger literally worked himself up from a very junior position and seems to be a very hard worker. Unlike those books, Iger’s personality — warts and all – comes through in the book. In as much as Iger often seems like a terrible boss to work for who thinks he’s a great one.

I am unsure if this is on purpose. Iger’s seemingly accidental description of himself as a demanding micromanager certainly gives the book an air of credibility. Plus, Bob Iger himself describes his desire to run for President. So a relatively honest discussion could help him get certain negative stories out early, limiting the damage of future “leaks.”

I enjoyed learning more about the history of Disney. I had known the previous CEO, Michael Eisner, was widely credited with the turn-around of Disney and lost his effectiveness as time goes on. The collapse of Disney animation and his relationship with Jeffrey Katzenberg], the short but dramatic partnership with Michael Ovitz, and the bitterly hostile relationship between Eisner and Steve Jobs are all well known. Iger also talks about the loss of Eisner’s friend and colleague, Frank Wells, as a blow to the company.

Most of Iger’s writing on Disney focuses on the four major purchases the company made under his leadership — Pixar, Marvel, LucasFilm, and BAMTech. Out of these came much intellectual property — such as the characters from Toy Story, Avengers, and Star Wars, as well as the technical foundations for the Disney+ streaming service, as well as Disney’s abortive purchase of Twitter. In each of these cases, Iger shares some of his interactions with the principals at the other companies and described the corporate culture at the other companies. Having been acquired twice (as Capital Cities purchased ABC, and later as Disney acquired Capital Cities / ABC), Iger expresses empathy and awareness for the difficulties that combining corporate cultures can bring.

It’s one of these acquisitions, and the consequences thereof, that spurred my interest in this book. I enjoy science fiction — on this blog, I’ve reviewed the novella The Frozen Sky and book series like The Three-Body Problem and Tom Stranger.  In film, I’ve long enjoyed Star Wars, and the mismanagement of that brand after Disney’s first film, The Force Awakens, until their most recent effort, The Mandalorian is legendary. The linear trend has been declining revenues. But why?

Iger provides an implicit answer in Ride of a Lifetime. For other acquisitions, the credit is placed on the leadership the prior CEO had set in place. John Lassiter at Pixar, and Kevin Feige at Marvel, are generously praised for the way they maintained and developed future success. At LucasFilm, Iger claims that the successor to founder George Lucas, Kathleen Kennedy, was hired without his knowledge or approval. Yet, Iger’s description of himself as someone who passively accepted whatever leadership was in place seems dubious. He later forced out John Lassiter, as well as Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter. So I, and others, view Iger’s passive description as the washing of responsibility and association, rather than a reliable guide to Iger’s actual thinking process.

Iger also describes his ideological work, such as his pro-active decision to fire the actress Roseanne Barr for expressing beliefs he disagrees with. He proudly discussed the appreciative call he received from a Democratic party staffer for doing so. But given the success Disney’s market cap has had since Iger took over — from approximately $50 billion to approximately $300 billion — shareholders were ok with Iger spending some of the company’s political capital to help his own image.

I wish Bob Iger had shared more about the future of Disney — the Disney+ streaming service. While he briefly discusses the acquisition of BAMtech and Disney’s view of Twitter as a potential distribution platform, the reader leaves knowing much less about this than about the Pixar, Marvel, or LucasFilm work. Perhaps this is on purpose. Those are accomplishments of the past. The successes and gambles of Disney+ belong to the present or the future. Disney is simultaneously competing with established giants like Netflix and new entrants like AT&T’s HBO Max. Loose lips may sink ships.

I am glad I read more of Ride of a Lifetime. I appreciate Iger more than just the person who bought Pixar and launched Disney+. I can see the success of a man who leads in a way I would find personally obnoxious. And I wonder what comes next.

I read The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of Walt Disney Company in the Audible edition.

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