As I mention in my cover interview with Bob Iger in this week’s issue, when you look back at his impressive 15-year run as CEO, it’s funny to think about how many people in the industry and the media — myself included — underestimated him. For the decade that Iger worked under then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, leading up to his run to succeed him in 2005, people frequently used the term “empty suit” when referring to Iger. Of course, we were all proven wrong, and Iger admits that even though the lack of support at the time was excruciating, his strong track record as CEO even wound up surprising him: “I exceeded my own expectations.”
He says that more than anyone else he ever worked with, Eisner taught him about “the power of great storytelling and how important it was.” That said, when Iger took over, he inherited some significant problems, like having to turn around the entertainment company’s declining performance and a general disillusionment with the Disney brand.
Iger’s biggest challenge as CEO, however, would come years later when he was forced to lead Disney through the worst pandemic in modern history. Just weeks after stepping down as CEO in February 2020, with Bob Chapek assuming that role and day-to-day duties, COVID-19 exploded. “I was trying really hard to help Bob manage through what was the biggest crisis the company ever faced,” he tells me in our Q&A. As executive chairman, Iger spent his time heavily focused on keeping Disney’s creative fires burning at a perilous time, which he says in retrospect “will have real benefits for the company and for my successor long term.”
The subject of the book Iger plans to write next will focus on how leaders reacted to the pandemic. “It struck me in managing through a significant crisis that leaders are frequently balancing a set of countervailing dynamics,” he says. He explains that among other factors, those running companies need to be optimistic because people are looking for hope, but at the same time they must be “extremely realistic to call it like it is,” making sure everyone is listening to the messaging and reacting accordingly.
“Then there’s the whole notion of leaders needing to relate to people and portray themselves as human beings, but at the same time needing to be fearless,” says Iger.
Iger certainly fulfilled that role not only during COVID but over the course of his time as CEO.
One rival media figure I recently spoke with perhaps best sums up Iger’s exit, telling me that his “walking off is going to be such a loss for us all.”