Leadership Shake Up in the Magic Kingdom

What the changes at Disney say about Leadership


Iyla Hernden '26

Trouble in the Magic Kingdom

To say I’m passionate about the Walt Disney Company is an understatement. In third-grade English, every student would write a daily 100, a seemingly good lesson in creativity. That is unless you were me and wrote the word “Disney” 100 times. Being invested as a Disney fan meant I was disheartened by the poor leadership of their previous CEO, Bob Chapek. He failed to connect with me as a consumer, and I was often upset with his various mishandlings. So, I was overjoyed when it was announced two weeks ago that Bob Iger would return as CEO of Disney, struggling after Chapek’s two-year reign.

Who is Bob Iger?
When you think of the Disney we know today, the master behind it is Bob Iger, who was the company’s CEO from 2005-2020. Mr. Iger was responsible for the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox and oversaw the debut of Disney+, Disney’s wildly successful streaming service. He was also at the helm for the releases of Avengers: Endgame, Frozen I and II, the most recent Star Wars trilogy, Black Panther, and the multiple live-action remakes. Beyond that, he represented the values of Disney. The way he talked about the company was powerful; his guiding principle was that creativity was their most valuable asset. He says that “the heart and soul of the company is creativity and innovation.”

He was empathetic, not afraid to talk about politics that he felt went against the company’s values, and a risk taker. So when he abruptly announced his retirement in February 2020, the entertainment industry was shocked. His hand-picked successor, Bob Chapek, didn’t have the same charm or charisma that people loved about Iger. While Bob Iger decided to stay as executive chairman due to the worsening pandemic, the company began a downward trend in stock value, finances, morale, and success. Two weeks ago, Chapek was fired, and Iger was brought back as CEO in a shocking move by the Board of Directors.

What Happened?
The company has experienced a slew of hardships and controversies in the past two years, worsened by the pandemic. Ultimately to blame, however, was Bob Chapek, whose inept leadership, unsteady hand, and lack of investment in the company and its stakeholders resulted in its decline. While Iger was known for his well-established relationships in Hollywood, Chapek was popular in many public feuds. Among them was an argument with Scarlett Johanson over her pay in the movie Black Widow and a controversy with Peter Rice, a well-known Disney Executive, who was abruptly fired in a 10-minute meeting with Chapek. Perhaps the biggest saga ensued in the summer of 2021 when Chapek declined to speak on the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, where many of the company’s operations are located. The bill prohibits the education or discussion of topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade. While stating on their website that [they] want “every employee, guest, and customer to feel seen, heard, and understood,” not criticizing the bill was an apparent step backward for the company. Then, after company walkouts and an infuriated workforce voiced their opposition, Chapek came out against the bill a little too late.

After the Florida incident, news circulated that Iger and Chapek were not on good terms. Iger had reportedly been dissatisfied with many of Chapek’s decisions and structural changes to the company. From Iger saying that “[He] couldn’t think of a better person to succeed me in this role” in February 2020 to an embittered relationship, the Bobs’ relationship quickly shifted to a contentious one. The Board of Directors, in a show of support for Chapek, extended his contract after the Florida incident in July. However, in the most recent quarter for the company, earnings missed estimates by a reported one billion dollars. Immediately, calls for Chapek’s firing grew, and in a quick decision, the Board Chair asked Iger to come back as CEO for a contract of two years. His job is to bring order to a struggling company and vet a successor again.

What does it say about leadership?
In the most recent quarterly webcast, Bob Chapek referred to theme park attendance as an “unfavorable attendance mix.” He implied that there were too many annual pass holders visiting the parks compared to fewer out-of-state visitors who tend to spend more money on accommodation and food than pass holders. After his comments, many parkgoers wore shirts with “Unfavorables” or “unfavorable attendance” screen-printed on the front. This is the last example of how Bob Chapek upset Disney stakeholders by seeming less than understanding about their passion for the company. Instead, he appeared to be more interested in the bottom line. Good leadership hinges on a balance between financial stability and the care and protection of the leader’s community.

During his two-year reign at the company, Chapek was criticized for lacking emotional intelligence and empathy, fatal traits in the world of leadership. Iger, however, excels at this. He will undoubtedly be known for his strengths in communication with the Disney community. Many employees called Iger with complaints about Chapek and his lack of response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Moreover, one Disney employee even responded with the statement “daddy’s back” after announcing that Iger would return to the company.

Bob Iger also paints himself as an optimist leader, writing in his book Ride of a Lifetime that “one of the most important qualities of a good leader is optimism, a pragmatic enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Even in the face of difficult choices and less than ideal outcomes, an optimistic leader does not yield to pessimism.” Undoubtedly, Iger’s optimistic yet intentional leadership was an attractive quality to the board in the final decision-making days.

These qualities, which make Iger beloved by many, are more critical in today’s leaders than ever. Leadership that centers around empathy, optimism, and a love for the organization is a recipe for success in a world influenced by hardships such as the pandemic and political and societal turmoil. When leaders have these qualities, it strengthens every part of an organization, from revenue to morale. These qualities facilitated Iger’s ability to craft the Disney we know today and make it one of the world’s most beloved companies.

I believe he’ll bring the company back to stability and resurrect the reputable industry leader the company is. However, he should also try to vet a successor from the Walt Disney Company. While Bob Chapek was internal and flawed, I believe he was a rare case of an internal hire gone wrong. The next CEO needs to fully understand the company: its values and what it stands for. They also need to be able to have worked with Iger, understand his best qualities as a leader, and be able to continue the gradual evolution of the company in his footsteps.