The story behind Robert Iger’s 46-year rise from budding TV weatherman in Ithaca, N.Y., to CEO of the Walt Disney Co. is a literary e-ticket, as they used to say at Disneyland, that includes appearances by some of the most thrilling innovators and iconic disruptors of our time.
Iger’s book, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” contains insider detail about how he painstakingly guided the acquisition of animation powerhouse Pixar from Steve Jobs, then persuaded George Lucas to entrust Disney with his “Star Wars” franchise. Readers also learn about his role in the deal to buy 20th Century Fox studios from entertainment mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Yet even after 246 pages of those and other dramatic scenes, Iger seems to have left one rather large elephant standing in the room. More about that in a moment.
Regaled in Hollywood as one of its most successful corporate chieftains, Iger helped build Disney into an international juggernaut that now includes television networks ESPN and ABC, theme parks from Anaheim to Hong Kong, plus the Marvel, Lucasfilms and Fox Searchlight studios. Disney’s recent flicks have been both blockbusters and groundbreakers; for example, Iger wanted to prove that audiences worldwide could love superheroes who were not just a bunch of muscled white males.
“As I write this, Black Panther [Chadwick Boseman] is the fourth-highest-grossing superhero film of all time, and Captain Marvel [Brie Larson] the tenth,” Iger notes.
Disney shareholders, in the meantime, have seen a sixfold increase in their stock’s value since 2005. And a boardroom battle between the late Roy E. Disney and then-CEO Michael Eisner, an Iger mentor who was ousted as a result, has been put to rest.
All the while, Iger has managed to hold fast to his reputation as a humble and downright decent guy, even when facing tremendous stress. Glimpses of that appear when he recounts the 2016 opening days of Disneyland Shanghai, a $6-billion gamble that took 18 years to complete amid repeated negotiations with Chinese government officials.
Iger was in Shanghai five days before the ceremonies when he learned of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. It turned out that the gunman, Omar Mateen, had initially targeted Disney World, 15 miles away. It was news that “shook me in a way few things have over the course of my career,” Iger writes.
He recounts that Mateen had been picked up by surveillance cameras as he paced outside the park’s entrance near the House of Blues, with a semiautomatic rifle and pistol hidden in a child’s stroller. Because a heavy metal concert was scheduled that night, five extra armed security guards were on the scene, and that apparently caused the gunman to switch to the nightclub. Forty-nine people were killed, including two part-time Disney employees.
About the same time, another horror struck: a 2-year-old boy playing along a lagoon near a Disney World hotel was attacked and dragged into the water by an alligator. When it was confirmed that the child had been killed, Iger dictated a public statement expressing sympathy to the parents, a family vacationing from Nebraska.
But upon returning to his hotel room to get ready for the Shanghai ceremony that night, he decided to call them personally. The father came on the line and, Iger writes, “I just started talking. I reiterated what I’d said in the statement, that I was a parent and a grandparent, that I couldn’t fathom what they must be going through.” In the end, he gave the father his direct number and promised to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. “And then we hung up and I sat there shaking on the edge of my bed,” Iger writes. “I’d been crying so hard that both of my contact lenses had come out.”
Iger, known to wake around 4:15 each morning so he can work out before heading to the office, writes that his book is not a memoir so much as a career guide for future business leaders, and it does provide potentially useful lessons. From his early days as “the lowliest crew member working on a daytime soap opera” in New York to his eventual rise to head the ABC network, he worked hard, learned all he could and tried to be in the right place at the right time.
He lists 10 “principles that strike me as necessary to true leadership,” such as be optimistic, courageous, curious and fair. Under “Authenticity,” he writes, “Be genuine. Be honest. Don’t fake anything. Truth and authenticity breed respect and trust.” And a paragraph under “Integrity” ends with this belief: “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”
Now for the seeming elephant: In 2018, Iger took home an annual pay package worth $65.6 million. Filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney — the granddaughter of co-founder Roy O. Disney and grandniece of Walt — appeared on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” news show in March to support raising taxes on the wealthy.
When asked if she thought Iger was being paid too much, she replied: “There is nobody on earth — Jesus Christ himself isn’t worth 500 times his median worker’s pay.” A month later, she doubled down, writing in the Washington Post that “the naked indecency” of Iger’s pay was actually “1,424 times the median pay of a Disney worker.”
She said she liked Iger and that he has been a great CEO. But given the political debates across the nation over income inequality, she said, “It is time to call out the men and women who lead us and to draw a line in the sand about how low we are prepared to let hard-working people sink while top management takes home ever-more-outrageous sums of money.”
Iger’s book makes no mention of his compensation, Disney wages or her salary complaint. I wish he would have addressed the issue head-on. That’s what leaders are supposed to do, right?
A final point: Iger acknowledged in the book that for a time he had explored “a run for the presidency” in 2020. He spoke with Democratic Party bigwigs and pollsters, reread some famous speeches and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But he decided against it.
That’s probably a good thing, because as effective as he may be, the salary issue alone would be a heavy lift on any campaign trail.
Random House: 246 pages, $28
Nottingham is a former Times editor based in Orange County.