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We are All Part of the Magic: Insights From Disney Leadership Experts

by on March 5, 2024

James Songster is a magician and an educator who worked for Walt Disney World Resort® for 30 years. In 1997 he founded James Songster Emerging Leader Training. Sue Schank had a career in public education as an exceptional education teacher and department chair, and then a longer career at Walt Disney World Resort®, mostly involved with the education department.Barbara Blake started at The Walt Disney Company® in 1978 and ended up working there for 42 years. The majority of that time was in educational opportunities.
Together they operate James Songster Emerging Leader Training (https://BetterLeadershipSkills.com), a company devoted to unlocking the best of leadership, teamwork, creativity and organizational culture.

Doug Crane is the Director of the Palm Beach County Library System. He shares his musings on productivity, libraries, and leadership at his website: www.efficientlibrarian.com

Doug: How did the three of you meet?
Barbara: In the education department at The Walt Disney Resort®, which started in 1979 with children’s educational programs. The same department then created business programs, educator programs for teachers, and knowledge-based programs for adults visiting the Parks. Eventually all of that came under the same umbrella of the Disney Institute®. Sue and I taught educator programs. James joined the team soon afterwards, and I came back to the Disney Institute to lead that department after four years in public relations for the town of Celebration.

Doug: What would you say are the key components that Disney taught each of you about leadership?
Barbara: Based on the Disney philosophy both for the Studio and the Theme Parks, we recognized the need to support the employees, known as cast members. We wanted to create the best experience by putting processes and procedures in place that would support them and allow them to be successful. That support system would allow the Cast Members to create a great guest experience for everybody that came to Walt Disney World or explored their products. We still needed logical and efficient business practices because Disney is a business. Our leaders were not only trained in whatever department they led, but we also had a lot of training from our Traditions, our origin story, our values and the Company’s mission, to whatever we can do as leaders to support our Cast.

James: I think a big element of the Disney leader philosophy is that I saw that leadership walked and talked exactly the way they said we should, so there was consistency of message. There is a mutual respect across the lines of seniority and responsibility when everybody has the same value system, the same decision-making process, and the same shared purpose. That is one of the biggest keys to the Disney leadership philosophy. Nobody is better than anybody else–we are all part of the magic.

Doug: At Disney, what were the key aspects of successful teamwork and how do you train others how to build those key aspects of successful teamwork?
James: Leadership worked to bring in people that were already in the right mindset. A big part of our philosophy was to choose for the mindset that complements our team and then teach skills, as opposed to somebody’s who’s got this great skill set and now we have to shape their mindset. I think another key factor was the way we benefited from being in an environment where we had an amazing collection of differences. We valued and craved diversity because we want as many different ideas, backgrounds, and thoughts as we can get. It’s a strategic advantage that is complementary to our mission. It gave us a greater ability to serve the clients.

Sue: I would have our trainer team instill to our trainees that everyone was there because they showed such enormous potential. Every single one was deserving of respect all the way around. It was vitally important that we respected each other. We knew everybody was different as we purposely hired a diverse team, but we respected those differences and respected those people. The talents and the gifts they brought to us were critical for me.

Doug: Disney is known for its amazing creativity. How do you teach others how to tap into the creative spirit?
Sue: People won’t let the creativity fly if they feel unsafe. We created a safe environment where it’s okay to take a flying leap. It might be fabulously successful, or it might not. Either way we learn from it and apply that moving forward. Creating a safe space is what makes creativity possible. It is absolutely essential that people feel comfortable and safe being creative

James: There’s a big thick coffee table book that Cast Members love called “Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life.” It’s written by two of Walt’s favorite guys, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. There’s one page in the book about how at any given time one of three ‘Walts’ might walk into the office. There was Walt the creative dreamer with new ideas to share. There was Walt the realist who could marshal the existing resources. There was also Walt the critic who could look at a process and ask if this was really our best work. When I started teaching Unlocking Creativity Magic, we established that creativity is a strategic approach to problem solving. The mindset is: here’s the opportunity, here’s the risk in taking that opportunity, and here’s what we can learn if we seize that opportunity. But to be successful, we need to have that safe environment. We recognize that everybody has a place in this process: dreamer, realist, and critic. The way to get best efforts is when we value each person’s role in that process and understand the thinking behind why we go through this process. We define creativity as the point where imagination collides with opportunity. You have to be willing to take the chance, but you also have to do brainstorming and skill assessment and resource gathering in order to take advantage of the opportunity.

Barbara: In our Disney programs, we were always aware that some participants didn’t want to make a mistake or try something that might fail. We were asked to put on education programs in our new park in Hong Kong. Over there education is very structured and the students want to please their professors. Everything in our programs was very experiential. As we developed those programs in Hong Kong we had to figure out how to make that safe space for the students.

Sue: One of my favorite visuals of the difference in the systems and discovery of a new way of doing things was testing with kindergarten and first grade students. We had a small test group of a dozen students and their teachers. One of my co-workers, Michael, was doing the program. At one point they were walking down Main Street in the Park. All the students were quiet and walking in a straight line behind Michael because he was the leader. Michael saw what was going on and he started doing a serpentine walk down the street. He went side to side around the lamp posts and trash cans, weaving and wandering around. At first the kids literally stopped and looked at him like he had sprouted a second head. Then one by one they started a kind of giggle and followed him. By the time we got to the end of Main Street they were laughing, clapping, and holding hands. They came out of the constraints that their educational structure put on them. It was an eye-opening experience for their teachers. They saw it was possible to change the mindset. When you set the right atmosphere to support self-confidence and know it’s safe to experiment, amazing things happen.

Doug: One of your workshops is about creating purposeful cultures. Please define what a purposeful culture is and share how it is created.
James: Every organization has an existing culture. It’s the environment in which we all work and live, but when you ask somebody how it came to be, they usually don’t know. It’s what they do, and they can’t tell you why. As a magician, I have to begin from a very purposeful point of view. Everything that I do as a performer has a motivation. If I do anything randomly I’ll lose my audience. Everything Disney did was chosen for a reason. That came all the way down to the training and how people engage with each other. I came to the realization that there is a shared value system for making decisions. To create and sustain a purposefully created culture, people must understand how their choices and actions impact that culture. You have to create a defined set of values for decision making that says “we do what we do because it’s important to our culture.” If two people work in the same environment but have different rules and values, it will create a culture where one side wins and one side loses. When everybody has the same value system and the same guidelines for making those decisions, then there is consistency. It’s accepting the idea that those choices are for a strategic reason – to support the culture.

Sue: When you have common values, and everyone understands the mission and the purpose, an organization can accomplish so much more. In our Unlocking a Purposefully Created Culture program, we give people an understanding of the processes and tools to make purposeful choices about the direction they want their organization to go, and how to travel in that direction. People feel more empowered and engaged in the culture.

Doug: Disney has five keys to their culture or leadership. Please list them.
James: Originally, there were four keys to be used as a decision-making process: Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency. All Disney Cast Members, no matter their specific role, were taught these same Four Keys, and learned to prioritize them in the same exact order. When making decisions, whether it is staffing, buying trash cans, landscaping, or any ride operation, the first choice is always safety. Secondly, cast members are courteous in all actions with each other and guests. Next is creating what Disney calls “good show,” and that is everything the guest experiences. Finally, Cast Members look for efficiency. The order of these Keys meant you can’t focus on efficiency if it sacrifices safety or courtesy. It allows people to prioritize decisions in the moment. The vision of the company is to create magic for each and every guest, and for all Cast Members as well. So, a few years ago they added a fifth key and that was Inclusion. When they added this new key, they built it in as a component of each of the original Keys. Decisions are made with inclusivity in mind. What’s remarkable is it made the cast members feel more valued. They felt seen, heard, and accepted. The guests also responded to it because they saw that people like them worked there. We were talking about teamwork, the idea that a mindset of inclusion isn’t just a good policy, it’s a business advantage. Whether you’re a for-profit, not-for-profit, or educational institution, it’s a strategic advantage when everybody feels like they belong here.

Doug: How did you end up founding your training company and start working with libraries?
James: Growing up, I was the library kid that went to all the programs and also became a volunteer. Libraries were safe places that I could explore. As a magician, I wanted to be in places that I knew, so I naturally performed for summer reading programs. As my training programs were expanding, it became a natural thing for me to offer them to the same clients I was already supporting. I was given the opportunity to facilitate our Unlocking Creativity Magic workshop for the 2022 Florida Library Association conference. That was the big kick starter of how we got started supporting libraries across the state.

Doug: Having worked with librarians, what are you hearing from library workers are the biggest leadership and cultural challenges they’re facing?
James: In our workshops, we run an exercise where we ask participants specifically what their teams are struggling with. The first thing that comes up on their list every single time is communication. They believe they don’t communicate with each other effectively or efficiently. Every organization we have ever worked with has this as the first answer. Another thing we hear is that they don’t like working in an environment where different points of view or input are not being supported or heard.

Sue: When we do our Culture program, we talk about the idea of purposely created culture and having input over where the culture is going. It is a common theme for our participants that “No one is listening to us.” They have all these ideas that don’t go anywhere. The more they talk about the issues they face, the more it becomes obvious that they don’t understand the culture of their organization. When asked to describe their culture, it is a difficult challenge for them to articulate it. A lack of understanding of what the culture really is and what drives it, I think is a source of great frustration for our groups.

Doug: Please share a book that had an impact on your development.
Barbara: When I started at Disney in 1978 they didn’t do a lot of explanation about the philosophy of Disney beyond the Four Keys. So I read Bob Thomas’s book “Walt Disney: An American Original” and reread it several times. It’s an incredible biography because he knew Walt and got the interviews directly from him. It was a valuable tool for me to understand the company on a personal level.

Sue: A book I’ve read a million times is Earl Kelly’s “Education for What is Real©.” It was written post World War II and explored the education system when the nation is coming out of the war and into a golden future. He looks at why people are the way they are and why they make the choices they make. He noticed that people tend to respect and be kind to others. However, we’ve built a competitive society where people want to win and someone has to lose. When I got into training with Disney, “Education for What is Real” was a mental guideline for me in terms of the need to share knowledge and skills for students to be successful versions of themselves. It’s part of my job to help them see that journey.

James: I would say the first book that I remember having a profound effect on me was “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach. The philosophy behind it is that excellence is a personal choice. Nobody can stop you from excellence if you have a mindset for it. It is a choice that you have to make for yourself. It may come at great risk and pain but you have to set your wings at the right position to do the things that you want. That was really important to me when I was young because I was going against the trends and the wishes of my college and my high school counselors. I was determined to chart my own course.

Doug: How are your workshops structured?
James: Our programs flow as a conversation that starts with “I: Unlocking Leader Magic,” all about self-reflection and awareness. That takes us to “We: Unlocking Teamwork Magic,” about methods for embracing our collective skills, and reaching our goals and becoming successful. Then we have “How: Unlocking Creativity Magic,” developing a strategic approach to problem solving. And lastly, we have “Why: Unlocking a Purposefully Created Culture,” answering the critical questions. Why does this matter to our organization? Why do we want this? It’s the leadership, teamwork, creativity, and culture, all working together that makes the difference. It was true at Disney and it’s true in all of our individual careers. No matter your career path, you still have to answer those four things: Who am I? Who are we? How do we create the culture and the environment that will support us? And why does it matter in the first place?

Doug: James, you’re known for doing magic tricks in workshops and even teaching students a magic trick. How did this training approach come around?
James: We say they’re workshops and not seminars because a seminar implies I’m just going to talk at you. A workshop says it’s hands-on. The old saying is: Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand. So, I use magic to engage their imagination, to keep them curious and excited. I love it when the students are all participating and performing the magic. I don’t do a trick in the middle of a seminar or a workshop only for a brain break. The reason we do this magic is to build the connection between the content and the fun experience of the workshop. There is a great Walt Disney quote that says: “Laughter is no enemy to learning.” If you’re having fun you’re more likely to engage. If you’re engaged, the outcomes are going to be more impactful.

Doug: To wrap up, please share a favorite Walt Disney quote that’s kind of stuck with you.
James: I’m going to take as my favorite Walt quote: “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” I’ve found that to be good solid advice.

Barbara: My favorite is: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Sue: Mine is a little longer but I love the sequence of it. “First think, second believe, third dream, and finally dare.” I love that approach to tackling the world.