Bob Iger Laughs at Past Mistakes, Reveals Secrets at UCLA Gala

Bob Iger John Wooden Global Leadership
Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Even Walt Disney Company chairman and CEO Bob Iger has made mistakes, which he took some time to reflect on while sharing some of his secrets to success at a UCLA Anderson School of Management gala at the Beverly Hilton in LA Nov. 21.

The Disney topper was there to receive the John Wooden Global Leadership Award, a fete named in honor of the school’s famous basketball coach. Wooden died in 2010, and UCLA Anderson School management dean Judy Olian took some time to remember him in a heartfelt introduction.

“Recently, I came across a quote from Coach Wooden that I hadn’t seen before that makes so much sense: ‘The main ingredient to stardom is the rest of the team,’” she said. “That’s the essence of leadership.”

However, the night was turned over to Iger in his acceptance of the award, and he partook in a sit-down interview with ABC News correspondent Cecilia Vega. Before the interview, or “leadership discussion” as it was dubbed, Olian reflected on Iger’s career beginnings.

“He started his network career as a production assistant at ABC New York, and he knew he found his calling,” she said. “Apparently, his boss didn’t get that memo and about a year into it, Bob was told by the boss that he simply not promotable. Fortunately, Bob didn’t listen.”

Later in the interview, Iger verified the story without mentioning names, but says he was vindicated as the aforementioned boss “ultimately left in handcuffs.”

Over the course of the conversation, the talk turned to the dark side of success, and Iger explained he does his best to avoid that.

“Success can breed all kinds of other behavior that causes companies to behave in ways that aren’t necessarily best ingredients for achieving more success,” he said. “For instance, with success comes arrogance. That’s typically the death of success. With success comes pretension and risk aversion, because you’re working too hard to protect the very success or the value that you’ve already created.”

“You have to really avoid allowing the success to get in the way of creating more of it,” he went on. “All of the characteristics that I just described can do just that, so we talk a lot about that.”

He revealed that senior management considers “fighting arrogance” to be a major priority, and he’s targeted top execs in all departments in staying grounded.

Vega cited a quote by Wooden, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,” and asked Iger to share a time when he made an error in judgment. His response caused a roar of laughter from the audience.

He recalled his decision in the early ‘90’s as a ABC primetime exec to put cop musical “Cop Rock” on the air, which ultimately lasted a mere 11 weeks and was a massive flop.

“This was before ‘Smash,’” he laughed, referring to NBC’s cancelled musical drama.

“With creativity comes inevitable failure,” he said. “The failure rate in our business is actually fairly high. It just comes with the territory because there is no science in creativity.”

Two fellowship recipients were also honored: Elliot Ling (MBA 2014) and Jordanna Mora (FEMBA 2015). Proceeds from the event fund the fellowships for Anderson students.

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