If you have even a passing interest in movies and the entertainment landscape, you should get acquainted with Robert Iger. Iger is the CEO of The Walt Disney Company, which now owns Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. Disney is one of the largest media companies in the world and the decisions that Iger makes have a direct impact on the global cultural fabric. This is not an exaggeration. He personally pushed for Marvel to make Black Panther (which proved that a black superhero could deliver both – a box-office smash and the first comic book-based film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) and Captain Marvel (which proved that female superheroes could also get cash counters ringing internationally).
Which is why I picked up Iger’s book – The Ride of a Lifetime. This isn’t an autobiography. Instead, Iger takes us through the highlights of his career and the lessons he’s learned about leadership, risk-taking, building a productive work culture and managing crises – it begins with him prepping to open Shanghai Disneyland in June 2016 (the park cost around 5.5 billion dollars – he describes it as ‘the biggest accomplishment’ of his career). He was leading a VIP tour (guests included George Lucas and Jerry Bruckheimer) when he was told about an alligator attack on a two-year-old boy at Disneyland in Orlando. The boy was playing by the beach at one of the hotels in the sprawling property. He went to fill his bucket with water when the alligator popped up and and took him under. Iger describes the aftermath of the attack – he called the parents and spoke to the father who only asked, through heaving sobs, that his son’s death should not be in vain, that this shouldn’t happen to any other child. Overnight, fences and signs went up across the park. And despite the weight of this tragedy on his shoulders, Iger went on to inaugurate Shanghai Disneyland. He says it was a happy day but it was also the saddest of his career.
It’s stories like this that make The Ride of a Lifetime worth reading. The book is written in simple, straightforward language. Iger is keen to impart the mantras that have enabled him to have a successful career and in places, it does sound a bit like chicken-soup for the professional soul. But largely, you sense a man with innate decency and sincerity. Iger is also the consummate corporate man – so the book doesn’t reveal the inner workings at Disney or any of the other companies. Sadly, we don’t get insight into the mind of Kevin Feige and how the incredible Marvel universe came into being. But Iger doesn’t shy away from difficult moments – how he negotiated with Lucas to buy Star Wars or how, just before the Pixar-Disney deal was going to be announced, Steve Jobs told Iger that his cancer had returned. There’s also the lovely memory of the note Oprah sent him a note after watching Black Panther. She wrote: “it makes me tear up to think that little black children will grow up with that forever.”
But Iger doesn’t shy away from difficult moments – how he negotiated with Lucas to buy Star Wars or how, just before the Pixar-Disney deal was going to be announced, Steve Jobs told Iger that his cancer had returned. There’s also the lovely memory of the note Oprah sent him a note after watching Black Panther. She wrote: “it makes me tear up to think that little black children will grow up with that forever.”
Disney has an outsized hold on our entertainment and our imaginations. The decisions that Iger takes impact the future of cinema. Which is what makes The Ride of a Lifetime relevant. Also it’s less than 250 pages – like any good leader, Iger knows when to stop!