Disney is in a protracted battle with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now a 2024 presidential candidate.
The corporate world is closely watching how it'll all unfold.
Insider turned to Disney CEO Bob Iger's 2019 book for insight on how he navigates challenges.
The battle over who controls Walt Disney World's land is one of the most fascinating stories in business and politics.
On the one side is Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, now a 2024 presidential candidate, who is determined to make Disney pay after it trashed a Florida schools law that severely limits how LGBTQ topics are taught.
On the other side is CEO Robert Iger, who left his brief retirement to join the fight for free speech and corporate special privileges upon returning to The Walt Disney Co. in November.
Iger's second tenure as CEO, coming after he replaced Bob Chapek, has been packed with drama so far. There was the loophole for Disney to maintain control of its land, public relations stunts, threats from the governor about building a prison on nearby land, and lawsuits waged by both parties.
DeSantis' efforts to take away Disney's autonomy could make it harder for the park to expand. As Florida's largest attraction with more than 70,000 jobs, Walt Disney World is crucial to both the company and the state.
Through it all, however, is a growing sense in the eyes of many Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, that Disney has become too "woke."
So what happens next? Iger's 2019 book, "The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company," offers some context and clues about how the CEO approaches challenges, and how Disney views the spat in Florida.
The book covers the first half of Iger's career at ABC, which Disney bought, and then his ascent to Disney CEO where he oversaw the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, LucasFilm, and 21st Century Fox.
Here are the biggest takeaways that shed light on the DeSantis feud:
Disney leadership keeps a tight lid on company secrets
After reading "The Ride of a Lifetime," it's no surprise that Disney was able to hide "Royal Clause" loophole it created to keep control of its land. While the maneuver filled the business world with shock and amusement, the covert operation was consistent with how Disney has operated, per Iger's telling, with carefully vetted and hushed decision making.
Iger kept bigger secrets for longer. During his first tenure at Disney, Iger orchestrated the $4 billion acquisition of Marvel without a single leak. Apple CEO Steve Jobs also told him before Disney's $7.4 billion Pixar deal closed that his pancreatic cancer returned, and Iger told no one but Disney's top attorney and his wife. Jobs would live almost five more years.
Iger also learned soon after it happened that the mass shooter responsible for the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando initially targeted Disney World. The shooter reversed course when he saw high security levels at the theme park, then Googled nearby clubs.
The public didn't find out about the plans until the gunman's widow was in court two years later.
Iger knows how to use political strategy to get what he wants
When Iger was being considered for the job of Disney CEO, political consultant Scott Miller gave him a campaign playbook and offered him advice about how to win over board members. Iger's big task, Miller said, was to focus on "swing" voters on the board who were hesitant about whether to support him.
"This is a battle for the soul of the brand," Miller said. "Talk abut the brand, how to grow its value, how to protect it."
Miller advised Iger to pitch three company priorities that would help Disney become "the most admired company in the world." The pitch had to be about the future, Miller advised.
Iger himself even considered running for president as a Democrat, he revealed in his book, and he told Bloomberg in 2020 that'd consider a role in the Biden administration. Iger's father was liberal and "deeply politically engaged" to the point of attending political rallies even when his workplace wouldn't give him time off.
"I was proud of his strong character and his politics," Iger wrote of his father. "He had a fierce sense of what was right and fair, and he was always on the side of the underdog."
Iger isn't obsessing over the DeSantis feud
The feud with DeSantis is hardly the only issue Disney is facing. The company just finished laying off 7,000 people, or 4% of its work force, to cut $5.5 billion in costs. Customers are complaining about higher prices at theme parks, which were imposed to make up for subscribers leaving Disney+. Last month, Disney World shut down its immersive Star Wars hotel.
Iger made it clear in his book that he's not the type of leader who obsesses over the district fight, or any individual hurdles the company faces. Being CEO of Disney requires a "never ending exercise in compartmentalization," he wrote.
The day Iger launched Disneyland Shanghai in 2016 followed the Pulse nightclub mass shooting, as well as a horrific, alligator-caused death of a toddler. He called the family of the boy who was killed and proceeded with the park's launch.
He wrote that some events required leaders to "drop everything" while others can be triaged to top executives so that he could focus on another pressing issue. He keeps a note on his desk that reminds him to put his energy only in projects that will have the biggest return.
Iger does admit to having an out-of-character anxiety attack and snapping at a board member when he was gunning for the CEO job at Disney for the first time. The lesson he took away from it was to "steer clear of anger and anxiety over things you can't control" because it'll take up too much space in the brain and sap up energy.
"I tend to approach bad news as a problem that can be worked through and solved, something I have control over rather than something happening to me," he wrote.
DeSantis' anti-Disney rhetoric is surely a problem for the company
Iger made clear throughout his book that preserving Disney's iconic brand drove business decisions. He called Disney "one of the most scrutinized corporations in the world" that has an "emotional resonance as an American brand."
Under predecessor Disney CEO Michael Eisner, board members said they worried that Marvel was "too edgy" and "would tarnish the Disney brand." Iger had to convince them to go ahead with an acquisition years later.
Concerns that Twitter would have been "corrosive" to Disney also spurred Iger's decisions to back out of buying the social media company. He worried about managing hate speech and dealing with messaging that could influence elections.
Disney's board even used brand research in 2005 to drive its decision to buy Pixar. Surveys at the time showed that "among women with children under twelve, Pixar had eclipsed Disney as a brand mothers thought of as 'good for their family.'" Board members, Iger wrote, were angry about the findings.
Disney did not respond to Insider's requests for more recent survey results. But DeSantis campaign finding show Disney is deeply unpopular with GOP primary voters in key states.
Disney board members are surely aware of an April Reuters/Ipsos poll finding that 64% of Republicans said DeSantis was right to roll back Disney's special privileges. Another recent poll, from Harvard CAPS/Harris, found 73% of Republicans and 54% of Independents support the governor limiting Disney's autonomy in Florida.
DeSantis has made it clear he'll drag Disney all over the 2024 contest, over its defense of the schools law and its expansion into China under Iger.
"We run the state of Florida," he said just last week during a speech in Orlando. "They do not run the state of Florida. It is wrong to sexualize children, it's wrong to put it in your programming, and it's wrong to try to force that in our schools."
Diversity didn't play a starring role in his book
It's not until about three-quarters through the book that Iger raises the issue of diversity failings in Disney's motion pictures. At that point, he pushed back against arguments from the entertainment industry that assumed audiences wouldn't want to watch Black or female superheroes.
Those arguments were "out of step with where the world is, and where it should be," he wrote, saying "Black Panther" was the company's project that made him the most proud.
Several Disney-affiliated films featuring LGBTQ+ characters have been released recently, including in "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," as well as "Strange World" and "The Eternals," which came out during Iger's brief retirement.
There's no mention of LGBTQ+ rights in the book, though he has talked publicly about the matter. In February 2022, while still retired, Iger warned on Twitter that Florida's forthcoming curriculum law would "put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy."
In a shareholder meeting in April, Iger said he would be "guided by a sense of decency and respect and trust our instincts that, when we do weigh in, we weigh in because the issue is truly relevant to our business and to the people that work for us."
The book previewed two possibilities about how Disney could get past the DeSantis feud
Iger, according to his own telling, has worked hard to build trust with people. It's a skill that helped him convince powerful leaders to sell their beloved entertainment companies.
"Headstrong" Jobs initially didn't want Pixar to work with Disney because the relationship under Iger's predecessor was badly tarnished. Jobs worried Disney was too risk-averse and slow in making decisions.
In response, Iger tapped into Jobs' innovative spirit by telling him about a vision he had for consumers to be able to access videos whenever they wanted. The meeting resulted in Apple partnering with Disney to stream ABC shows on iTunes.
Later, Jobs was open when Iger offered to buy Pixar — so long as Iger agreed to a "social compact" that allowed Pixar to preserve some of its cultural and business values.
Iger took a similar posture toward acquiring Lucasfilm, seeing early on that he needed to be sensitive toward preserving George Lucas' legacy as the creator of "Star Wars."
He even convinced Roy Disney, Walt Disney's nephew, to drop a lawsuit by hearing him out over how he didn't feel he'd gotten the respect he deserved from the company. They arranged for a board emeritus role and invitations to special events and openings, and Iger said he put his ego aside to save the company from a major distraction.
"If you approach and engage people with respect and empathy, the seemingly impossible can become real," he wrote.
The anecdotes raise questions over the extent to which Iger has made similar overtures to DeSantis.
Neither Disney nor the governor's office responded to inquiries on whether they've talked. While DeSantis isn't Jobs or Lucas, he is running for president. If he wins the White House, then Disney will have to work with his administration. If he loses, DeSantis will still be governor of Florida until 2026.
If Iger wants to broker a peace deal, his book raises a key question: Can Iger give DeSantis something that he wants more than making Disney a punching bag for his 2024 run?
It's possible that Iger will instead resort to something he devotes just a couple of his pages in his book to, which he calls "soft autocracy." It's an approach he used with one of his executives when Iger wanted Disney to celebrate the millennium across all its subsidiaries and around the world, but was met with some resistance and doubt.
It's "showing respect but also communicating that this was going to happen no matter what."
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