Disney CEO Bob Iger has lived by 3 distinct principles throughout his career, from his time as a janitor to his role leading a $256 billion colossus


Bob Iger bet big with the launch of Disney Plus, but his legacy extends well beyond the streaming service and the internet-breaking debut of Baby Yoda.

While the Mouse House suspended its theme-park operations in China and Hong Kong amid this year's coronavirus outbreak, it recently debuted "Star Wars"-themed areas in two US locations. Disney parks alone are valued at about $133 billion, according to a February 5 Bernstein client note. Banking analysts predict that the company's coming projects and Disney Plus could catapult its stock price as much as 20% this year, per Markets Insider.

Since Iger, who is also the company's chairman, officially became CEO on October 1, 2005, the company's stock has risen 492%. He is known for major acquisitions like Pixar in 2006, Marvel in 2009, and 21st Century Fox's entertainment assets last year.

Time magazine named him its businessperson of last year, likening his tenure to "one long CEO highlight reel" but listing 2019 as his best year yet, with Disney movies grossing more than $10 billion in the global box office. As CNBC noted, the release of films like "Frozen 2" and "Avengers: Endgame" helped Disney account for nearly 40% of the US box office in 2019.

Iger's streaming endeavor, Disney Plus, debuted November 12 and attracted roughly 28.6 million sign-ups in less than three months. And a recent US survey recorded half of consumers saying Disney Plus was "just as good as Netflix."

Disney's 2020 film-release schedule includes "Mulan" and Marvel's "Black Widow," though some analysts say it'll be less dominant compared with the past few years given the lack of a full Avengers or "Star Wars" addition. 

Yet expecting massive success wasn't always the situation. A $256 billion market cap is not to be assumed.

Flash back to 2005

When Iger took the helm nearly 15 years ago, Disney was in a tough spot.

"We had been through a rough five-year period, with a hostile-takeover attempt, a shareholder revolt, and a battle with two prominent board members," Iger told Harvard Business Review in 2011.

His first task, then, was mending relationships with the board members and allowing for internal peace. Then it was all about balancing the traditional with the contemporary and carving a place for Disney in modern times.

Iger plans to step down in 2021. His contract was extended for the fifth time in 2017. It is unknown whether Disney will once again push back the CEO's retirement date. Nevertheless, he'll be remembered for more than the quantifiable achievements that benchmark his career. Underneath it all lies a solid leadership strategy, one that allowed Disney to build on the success it experienced in the 20th century to secure a foothold in the 21st.

Business Insider previously reported that Iger allowed his work ethic to propel his career forward. His 4:15 a.m. wake-up time, morning workouts in near darkness, and arrival at the office early enough to make coffee for everyone speak volumes to the kind of leader he is: disciplined, focused, and strategic.

He's had to be. Iger's leadership strategy started taking shape in his teenage years, when he worked odd jobs to help support himself. He started shoveling snow in the eighth grade and earned extra cash with babysitting gigs. At age 15, he worked as a summer janitor in his school district, where he scraped gums under desks, CNBC reported.

"I am very lucky," Iger said at a September conference. "I was a lower-middle-class kid or middle class. My father had manic depression, so he had trouble holding a job. I started as a $150-a-week employee at ABC 45 years ago and rose up to be CEO of this company. It is a great story, but it is not necessarily because I was extraordinary." 

More than 45 years later, his strategy colors the highlights of his professional career. Iger often stressed that his success was a result of his outlook and approach — not his talent.

Three leadership principles helped govern his career from a high-school janitor to one of the world's most influential CEOs.

Practicing discipline at an early age helped build his leadership character 

With so many examples of how leaders can make disciples out of their employees, Iger stands apart with his discipline. From what he wrote in his 2019 book, "The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company," Iger seems to strive for an authentic presence, rather than a bigger-than-life one.

"There's nothing less confidence-inspiring than a person faking a knowledge they don't possess," Iger wrote. "True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else."

Iger has humble beginnings: He started his career as a weatherman before pivoting to more than 20 positions within the studios of ABC Television, eventually including president of entertainment at ABC, president of ABC Television, and president and chief operating officer of Capital Cities/ABC.

"As I grew older, I became more aware of my father's disappointment in himself," Iger wrote in his book. "He'd led a life that was unsatisfying to him and was a failure in his own eyes. It's part of why he pushed us to work so hard and be productive so that we might be successful in a way that he never was."

With that in mind, Iger kept reaching. He joined Disney's senior management team in 1996, ascending to CEO as a Disney insider less than 10 years later.

Innovation turned Disney brand into something more

Even though Iger was personally familiar and steeped in the way Disney had historically done things, he wasn't afraid to explore the possibilities that the nearly century-old company hadn't developed. To him, innovation is not an end goal but a company focus. 

"You can't allow tradition to get in the way of innovation," Iger told Harvard Business Review. "There's a need to respect the past, but it's a mistake to revere your past."

In that vein, Iger led the acquisitions of creative powerhouses such as Pixar to inject an influx of fresh thought. At the same time, he's attempted to maintain the aspects of Disney culture that keep people working there. This encompasses the overall purpose that goes into working at a company with a generations-long influence like Disney.

Iger essentially wanted to preserve the feel of the brand while allowing for innovation within it — and this extends to the product level.

"There's a culture and a way of life at the company that you've bought that sometimes can be integral to the creative process or the process of creating product at that company," Iger told NPR in September. "And if you go about it in too heavy-handed a way, you can destroy spirit and culture and a sense of purpose — and in doing so, destroy the very essence of what you bought, or reduce value."

Optimism created a better workforce

Iger says that failure should be kept in perspective as much as success is — and that it's the job of a leader to be an optimist regardless of the circumstances.

"When you come to work, you've got to show enthusiasm and spirit," Iger said. "You can't let people see you brought down by the experience of failure. You don't have that luxury."

In his book, Iger also points to qualities like courage, focus, decisiveness, curiosity, fairness, and thoughtfulness as essential to effective leadership. For example, Iger wrote that every leader should create an environment in which fairness flourished.

"This doesn't mean that you lower your expectations or convey the message that mistakes don't matter," Iger wrote. "It means that you create an environment where people know you'll hear them out, that you're emotionally consistent and fair-minded, and that they'll be given second chances for honest mistakes."

According to Iger, it's the CEO who cultivates the strategic vision of an organization.

"It's the CEO who determines strategy, who is its major proponent, and who says, 'This is where we're going,'" Iger said. "You also set the standards that are applied to your company: how people behave, how they treat one another, what ethics are expected of your company and its products, and how it behaves in the world."