Everything I learned about leadership, I learned at Walt Disney World
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Right off the bat, I learned humility.
Maybe it was because I had to wear polyester front-pleated, waist high khaki shorts with a tucked in button down shirt and a sweaty baseball cap.
Or, maybe I learned humility when I was promoted to a coordinator role, months after joining the company.
Other employees had worked for the company longer and knew the job better than I did. I could understand why they might take umbrage. They didn’t know me, they didn’t owe me their trust or allegiance.
So, I approached them with humility—and why not? A leader’s job isn’t to be an expert in everything, it is to serve those you lead. I made it my mission to seek out the most tenured employees and ask them for input. I asked everyone for feedback to help me do my job—support them while they did what they did best.
This is called servant #leadership, and in my opinion, it is one of the most influential leadership styles. Although my leadership team had seen leadership qualities in me, that did not mean I could demand it of my peers. I had to earn it.
Servant leaders believe their primary role is to take care of those they lead. In essence, you work for them. Servant leaders do not “manage up”—doing things to impress those above them in hopes of gaining recognition or advancements. Servant leaders act on behalf of and in the best interest of those who work for them. Servant leaders recognize that the best reflection of their work is when their team succeeds.
After eight years working at Walt Disney World, I garnered a few examples of servant leadership (though I do not propose I was a perfect leader). I tried to practice what I preached, and I believed my primary purpose was to make my Cast Members’ jobs as “magical” as possible. In fact, the primary reason I applied for management was because every now and then I would hear someone lament that they “didn’t feel important” or that they were “just a number.” This didn’t happen often, but when it did, it broke my heart.
What do servant leaders do? Here’s how they take care of their employees first:
1. LISTEN to those you lead and actively seek feedback.
When I first began the training process as a manager, the most helpful advice came from my Cast Members. I asked them, “what is it that you love about your favorite managers? What is it that you don’t love about those whom you prefer not to work with?”
By inviting feedback, you let your employees know that they matter and that you want to work for them. I always followed up by telling my Cast Members to please give me constructive feedback—if I ever did something that was not helpful, I wanted to know. Opening the door to feedback creates trust and allows you to be a better leader for the people you are leading.
As I matured as a leader, I later implemented additional formal methods of listening. When Cast Members in a new area expressed some frustrations, we worked together to organize Town Halls, where everyone’s voice could be heard and we could work together to create solutions. As a leader, some changes were outside my scope, but you can always try to “solve for yes” by finding alternate means or compromises. In the end, feeling heard can be just as important as solving every problem.
2. VALUE those who work for you, because you can’t do $*** without them.
During my time as a leader and as an Ambassador for Walt Disney World, there was never a day that went by that I didn’t believe the only way I could do my job was because of the Cast.
Walt Disney World opened every day not because I showed up to work, but because the Cast Members did.
They knew their operation and they could do it without me. And I told them that. They were the experts in their field, they made magic for Guests, they made the difference.
Expecting quality work from my team just because they were given a paycheck wasn’t enough. I wanted to create a place they were happy to come to day in and day out, to feel like more than “just a number.”
I spent time getting to know the people I worked with. We would chat about kids and hobbies and sing along to music—sometimes I’d just plop on the floor and help them with some of their work. I liked the people I worked with.
We’d have fun. When you work at Disney World, it’s kind of a bad sign if you aren’t having fun, right? In my first coordinator role, I would round up fellow Cast Members for a “mandatory parade break” at the Magic Kingdom. We would cheer on our fellow Cast Members and create magical moments for Guests. As a leader, I would surprise Cast Members with spontaneous breaks and take them for ice cream, to watch a show, or even ride an attraction. I kept jars of “pixie dust” at my desk and informed new-hires to visit me if they ever needed a “pick me up” on a bad day—because how can you not laugh when you are shedding glitter everywhere you go?
Employees might owe you a specified number of minutes in exchange for a paycheck, but you will earn their enthusiasm, dedication, and support if they feel you value their contributions.
3. SUPPORT your team by being their biggest advocate.
As a servant leader, your job is to make sure your employees have the tools and ability to do their job. “Set them up for success” is what we said at Disney.
If obstacles outside of your employees’ scope arise that prohibit them from doing their job, a leader should jump in to fix those problems. Some of the most common examples are technology issues affecting productivity or processes that are broken.
Support can also mean making decisions that are in the best interest of your employees—sometimes even if it is at the expense of short-term “business results.”
I know some people may disagree with me on this one, and that is ok—it’s good to have balance and different views in management. At Disney, there were a couple of occasions where I went to bat for my Cast Members if I didn’t agree with a decision—even if that meant disagreeing with people above me (remember what I said about servant leaders not “managing up?").
It didn’t always mean that I won—policies are in place for a reason, and it is important to respect where policies are inflexible. But I always stood up for my personal beliefs of right and wrong, especially when an employee couldn’t advocate for themselves. Sometimes, we could find a compromise that meant a win-win for everybody.
Support means you view your employees as people and not as worker-bees that you manage with policy and without empathy. I think policies and values work together best if you have good intentions and remember that people matter.
Long story short, I genuinely loved the people I worked with and I wanted them to love coming to work. Every day wasn’t perfect, and I’m sure I fell short on more than one occasion, but I really tried to share how much I appreciated everyone’s hard work. I never believed I was owed their efforts just because they were given a paycheck. It is a two-way street—employers want employees to work hard for them, but good leaders should also create a culture where people want to work.
I am not suggesting business goals or the bottom line aren’t important, or even that they don’t sometimes trump everything else in certain situations. But servant leadership is not at the expense of business results and company initiatives. In fact, I think all of them must exist together. Because when you take care of your people, your people will take care of your customers, and your customers will take care of the business. That is the crux of servant leadership.
I firmly believe that the difference between a good company and a great company is a company that values its people overall—which is why I loved working for The Walt Disney Company.
Leadership is not inherent—it is not imbued upon you once you receive a promotion or title. Leadership is EARNED through the respect and admiration of those you manage. You are only a leader if your employees choose to make you one. Servant leadership inspires loyalty, reduces turnover, and increases job satisfaction. It's the best outcome for everybody.
Still not sure if you are good a leader? Why don’t you ask those you’re supposed to be leading—they’ll let you know.