My Leadership Mentor, Walt Disney

I was general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers during the team’s NBA Championship season, 1982-83. After that thrilling season, I began dreaming of new worlds to conquer. Why not build an NBA expansion team? That was a challenge to stir my blood.

But what did I know about starting an NBA franchise? I needed mentors. I first turned to my longtime friend Norm Sonju, who founded the Dallas Mavericks in 1980. He told me about raising money, getting participation from businesses and civic leaders, building a fan base, and getting the arena constructed. The longer we talked, the more intense my obsession grew.

After talking to Norm, I flew to Orlando for a speaking engagement. Afterward, my friends John Tolson and Jimmy Hewitt drove me to the airport. During the ride, I asked, “If you were going to start an NBA team in Florida, where would you put it—Miami or Tampa?”

As if rehearsed, they both said, “Orlando!”

I had never considered Orlando. But after John and Jimmy told me all the advantages of Orlando, I was sold. I said, “If you guys are serious about bringing an NBA team here, talk to the NBA commissioner, David Stern.” And I gave them Stern’s phone number.

A few days later, Jimmy Hewitt called me and said he had talked to David Stern and had lined up support from the city government and the Orlando Sentinel newspaper. I was in snowbound Philadelphia—and I could hear the Florida sunshine in Jimmy’s voice.

“Okay, Jimmy,” I said. “I’m in.”

In 1986, I resigned as general manager of the 76ers and moved my family to Orlando. It was a risky move. I had a big job ahead of me and no guarantee the NBA commissioner and league owners would award a franchise to Orlando. I knew I needed wisdom I didn’t possess. I needed the leadership wisdom of Walt Disney.

As the home of Walt Disney World Resort, central Florida is steeped in the legend and lore of Walt Disney. Though Walt never lived in Orlando, many people who had worked alongside him in the 1950s and ’60s lived there. In building an NBA team from the ground up, I was taking on a challenge that Walt had pulled off many times in his career.

When Walt built his first studio, when he made the first animated feature Snow White, when he built Disneyland in California, and when he planned an even more ambitious theme park in Florida, he always began with a dream. Then he turned that dream into a reality. The Orlando Magic was my dream, and I knew that Walt could teach me how to build it.

I read everything I could about Walt’s leadership legacy. I introduced myself to Disney exec, asked them question after question about Walt, and wrote down their priceless insights. I assimilated those insights into my own leadership style. Whenever I faced an impossible challenge, I asked myself, “What would Walt do?”

Later, I distilled everything I had learned about Walt into three books—Go For the Magic (1995), How to Be Like Walt (2004), and Lead Like Walt (2019). Though Walt Disney died two decades before I moved to Orlando, I feel I’ve truly been mentored by him.

Before I came to Orlando, I knew the managerial side of running an NBA team. But Walt taught me the entrepreneurial side of the basketball business—which, after all, is just another form of entertainment, like a movie or a theme park. The basic principles of one form of entertainment are transferrable to other entertainment fields.

In Walt’s leadership model, I discovered what I call The Seven Sides of Leadership, seven key leadership traits that all great leaders must have: Vision, Communication Skills, People Skills, Character, Competence, Boldness, and A Serving Heart. I distilled those seven traits into a formula I speak and write about to this day. I learned those seven traits from Walt because he demonstrated them in abundance, and those insights served me well for more than three decades with the Orlando Magic.

As I wrote in my latest book, Lead Like Walt, Walt Disney was “a cartoon producer, a live-action feature film producer, a documentary filmmaker, a motion-picture technology inventor (who held numerous patents), a beloved TV host, a theme park impresario, and a producer of Olympic Games events and World’s Fair exhibits. It seems impossible that one man could accomplish so much. But those accomplishments prove that Walt was one of the greatest leaders this world has ever seen. . . . The name Disney has become synonymous with happiness because happiness was Walt’s product.”

We are all leaders in one arena or another, whether that arena is the family, the workplace, the campus, a sports team, a house of worship, or a military unit. We will all be better leaders if we learn to lead like Walt.

Pat Williams is a basketball Hall-of-Famer, co-founder of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, one of America’s top corporate speakers and the author of more than 100 books.

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