Bob Iger, the chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, is one of the world's most admired chief executives. A lengthy story in the New York Times from earlier this week referred to him as "Hollywood's nicest CEO."

In his new book, The Ride of a Lifetime, Iger lays out the principles of success that took him from a menial job at ABC Sports early in his career to running all of Disney's media and theme-park properties. One of Iger's key principles is a five-word mantra that will help you excel as a leader in any field:

"The relentless pursuit of perfection."

Iger makes it clear that this principle does not mean chasing perfectionism at all costs. It does mean "a refusal to accept mediocrity." According to Iger, too many people make excuses that their work is 'good enough.' If you believe that something can be made better, put in the effort to do it, he says.

Iger says he learned about the relentless pursuit of perfection in one of his first jobs at ABC Sports in New York City. He spent weekends in the basement of a control room, taking in sports feeds and delivering them to producers and editors who got them ready for air. ABC Sports was run by legendary sports producer, Roone Arledge, who changed the way we experience televised sports today.

The Winning Mindset

"He was a relentless perfectionist," Iger recalls. "No detail was too small for Roone. Perfection was the result of getting all the little things right." Arledge would call the control room from wherever he happened to be on that weekend to adjust a camera angle or a emphasize a story line about an athlete. "Of all the things I learned from Roone, this is what shaped me the most."

Far from being a set of rules, Iger calls his philosophy "a mindset...it's about creating an environment in which you refuse to accept mediocrity."

After reading the book, I can see the principle working through Iger's career at Disney. For example, when Disneyland opened the new Star Wars theme-land in May, Iger explained how he motivated the company's Imagineers (engineers and creatives) to build the new experience. "When I first met with our Imagineers to talk about Star Wars, my message was actually quite simple: Do not be ambitious. Be the most ambitious that you have ever been," Iger said. "Blow their minds" with an experience unlike anything they've created, he added.

In this week's New York Times interview, Iger even tackled the subject of some Disney park employees in California who struggle with the high cost of living in Southern California. According to Iger, he's instructed his team to come up with "dozens" of solutions to improve their lives. "If they don't work, we're going to find dozens more. We have to be better."

Refuse to Accept Mediocrity

Once again, relentlessly pursuing perfection doesn't mean always being perfect. It means pushing back against mediocrity. And if something doesn't work, keep searching until you find a solution that does work.

Iger's friend, Steve Jobs, shared the same principle of success, which is one reason the two leaders formed a close bond. While conducting the research for my three books on Steve Jobs, I learned about all the ways Jobs relentlessly pursued perfection. For example, Jobs required that all laptops on Apple Store tables had to be tilted at exactly the same angle, all wires had to be hidden from view, and the elevator handles be made from material that resists fingerprints and smudges. 

Jobs was famous for expecting excellence from his team. When Apple engineers told Jobs that the wiring inside a computer was "good enough" because nobody would see it, Jobs shot back: "When you're a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you're not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it." 

Bob Iger leaves plenty of lessons for leaders to follow, as did his friend Steve Jobs. When two visionary leaders share a similar philosophy, it pays to listen. Success leaves clues.

Published on: Sep 27, 2019
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